Chapel Hill News

UNC system’s Tom Ross says goodbye amid protest over his successor

Protesters denounce UNC Board of Governors selection of Margaret Spellings

Dozens of protesters gathered outside of the UNC Board of Governors meeting Friday, December 11, 2015 at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development to denounce the board's choice of Margaret Spellings as the next UNC system president. Spelli
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Dozens of protesters gathered outside of the UNC Board of Governors meeting Friday, December 11, 2015 at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development to denounce the board's choice of Margaret Spellings as the next UNC system president. Spelli

Friday was a day of major transition for the UNC system, marked by more of the controversy that has surrounded the Board of Governors in recent months.

While dealing with protests over the selection of Margaret Spellings as incoming president, the board said goodbye to her predecessor, Tom Ross, whom the board ousted for unspecified reasons.

The board also named Junius Gonzales, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, interim president until Spellings takes over in March. Spellings did not attend Friday’s meeting.

Board Vice Chairman Louis Bissette Jr. was unanimously selected as the next chairman.

Bissette had been serving as acting chairman since the October resignation from the board of former Chairman John Fennebresque, who was under fire for how the search that selected Spellings was conducted.

The chants of about 70 protesters gathered in the lobby of the Center for School Leadership Development could be heard in the boardroom as Ross made his farewell remarks.

Ross said he had no regrets.

“I’m proud of the university which I’ll soon leave,” he said, “and what we have accomplished together.”

Board member Hannah Gage praised Ross’ leadership during trying economic times and deep budget cuts. His tenure stands out for expansion of online course offerings and opportunities for the military and part-time students, she said.

Gage called Ross “a tireless advocate for raising the educational attainment in the state.”

Ross was selected in 2010 by a Democratic-leaning board. The makeup has since changed dramatically under the state legislature’s Republican majority.

Zack King, an N.C. State student who serves on the board as a nonvoting member as the system president of the Association of Student Governments, called Ross a “remarkable and tireless advocate for students.”

King said students could tell Ross really cared about them. He then presented Ross with the ASG’s William C. Friday Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gonzales, whose new appointment takes effect Jan. 4, is expected to serve about two months as interim president. He will receive an additional monthly stipend of $15,000 until Spellings takes over.

Gonzales has served as vice president of academic affairs for the 17-campus system since January. He came to UNC from the University of Texas at El Paso, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Bissette is an Asheville lawyer and a former mayor of Asheville.

“I’ll see you back here in January, and let’s be ready to roll,” Bissette said to the board after his selection as chairman.

Protesters led out

Protesters started to gather in front of the Center for School Leadership Development an hour before the meeting.

Some tried to hand board members a handout explaining their concerns.

“Margaret Spellings is the embodiment of the corporatization of higher education,” the handout from the group Faculty Forward Network said. “She cannot lead the University of North Carolina system to a future that values students over politics and profits.”

As the meeting began, about half a dozen protesters who had made their way inside the boardroom stood up one by one to express their desire to have Spellings’ contract terminated. As one was led out by police to the cheers of the protesters in the lobby, another stood up.

Board member Steven Long, an attorney, said free speech does not give someone the right to interrupt a meeting and suggested any faculty members who did so should be disciplined.

“Either you believe in civil debate or you do not,” Long said.

He suggested that instead of protesting, those who disagree with Spellings’ appointment should call board members by phone and talk with them.

About half an hour before the scheduled meeting time the cheer of “Whose university? Our university!” began, and the protest moved to the lobby.

As protesters’ chants could still be heard as the meeting began, board member Marty Kotis said they were still being disruptive and should be removed from the lobby, but Bissette said the meeting would continue with them just outside.

‘Not what we want’

Carla Robinson, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Spellings was the wrong choice for the system and that the board’s process was faulty.

“She was chosen without input from students or faculty or taxpayers, and she had shown that her values are not what we want to see in continuing education,” Robinson said.

Altha Cravey, a UNC-Chapel Hill geography professor, said she is particularly disturbed by Spellings’ ties to privatization of education. Spellings, who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush, also has served on the board of the parent company of for-profit Phoenix University.

“I see her as a complete entity of the corporate world and privatization over public good,” Cravey said.

Demonstrators were also troubled by remarks they said show Spellings is intolerant of gay people and by disproportionate cutting of funds for historically black colleges and universities during her time as education secretary.

The protesters are calling for Spellings’ termination, as well as for the Board of Governors to commit to a more transparent process to select her replacement, Cravey said.

Outgoing UNC system president Tom Ross ends a long report to the UNC Board of Governors Friday, December 11, 2015 giving thanks for all the good people he has had to work for and with in his four years leading the state's 17 university campuses. R

Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com

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