In hindsight, once Republicans now in charge of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors had decided to fire President Tom Ross in what has become a long-running embarrassment to the state’s university system, they simply could have announced, “The president has been associated with Democrats, and we’re Republicans, and so we’re firing him, and we could care less what people think.”
The humiliation would have been no worse than what has ensued since the board took action in January of last year and then-Chairman John Fennebresque produced a confusing explanation in a curious news conference. He said then the firing wasn’t political. He praised Ross. And then the story dribbled out a little at a time.
Now, a further examination of emails related to the firing exchanged by board members offers some insight into how Republicans on the board, many relatively inexperienced, struggled not with the decision but with how to explain it. The News & Observer looked at hundreds of pages of emails.
Mostly, the emails are about spin, as members struggled with fallout from a controversial, to put it mildly, action on their parts. Legislative interference from GOP leaders has been repeatedly denied.
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Then there was the move by Fennebresque to consult a private public relations firm on how to manage the story. This is a common reaction by business executives to a crisis of their own making – to interpret it not as a self-inflicted mistake, but to regard it as a “public relations problem.”
So the public relations firm advised Fennebresque and board members to put a positive spin on the changes and talk about new ideas. But the blatantly political nature of the Ross firing was clear. No spin was going to change that.
Now, of course, the board has hired Margaret Spellings, a former federal secretary of education, to take the presidency, and she is in residence. Spellings has tried to calm the waters some since her arrival, and it’s unfair to attach to her the dreadful handling of the dismissal of her predecessor.
But those board members who took this purely political action cannot escape from or “manage” the story, and they should expect that the firing of a good and competent president is going to be a big part of their legacy as board members.
The latest batch of emails simply confirms what already was known: The same kind of partisan politics that has led to a multitude of mistakes in the General Assembly also thoroughly infected the UNC Board of Governors.