The UNC system's governing board will hire the next UNC president in a different political era for North Carolina and a rapidly changing landscape for higher education.
On Friday, the UNC Board of Governors took action to put an early end to the tenure of UNC President Tom Ross, even while praising his leadership, integrity and work ethic. The board chairman, John Fennebresque, said the board determined it was time for a presidential transition, but there was no event or problem that prompted the decision.
The move by the Republican-dominated board elicited scorn from many Democrats, who called it a politically motivated deed against a widely admired president. Fennebresque flatly denied that the change had anything to do with politics.
Ross will step down a year from now at age 65, after five years in the job. The board will soon launch a national search for a leader who will oversee a complex 17-campus public system that includes large research universities, small regional campuses, historically black universities, a liberal arts school, an arts conservatory and a science and math residential high school. The campuses enroll 222,000 students.
The job is difficult at best. Ross dealt with repeated state budget cuts, controversies and scandal, and brisk turnover among the chancellors. At the same time, higher education is changing, with online learning, deepening financial pressures and more demands for accountability by elected leaders, taxpayers and students.
On Friday, Fennebresque said it was too soon to say much about what the board will want in the next system leader. That will be determined in the search process, which will unfold in the coming months.
"We've got to get together and articulate the characteristics and traits of a new president," he said. "We're not in a hurry because it's got to be the right decision."
When Ross was selected to succeed Erskine Bowles in fall 2010, a giant political shift was weeks away. The Republicans would win control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in a century.
A year later, about half of the UNC governing board turned over, with new Republican appointees. The turnover continued in 2013 with the other half of the board. Suddenly, Ross, who had ties to Democrats, had new bosses who were not part of the decision to hire him.
On Friday, Ross and Fennebresque said the president worked well with the new board. But the environment was rough.
"This has been a period of transition for the university in a lot of different ways," Ross said. "There's been a dramatic change in board leadership. There's been a dramatic change in the state's leadership and policymakers. There's been about as bad an economy as we've had. So it's been a challenging time to lead."
There were squabbles, and some board members were intent on delving more into hands-on management, especially when it came to budget issues. There was more skepticism and more questioning of spending priorities. But Ross and the board crafted a five-year strategic plan in fairly short order, calling for an increase in degree earners, efficiency, technology in learning and research in several key areas.
Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he was sorry to see Ross go.
"I would say overwhelmingly faculty felt that he was sort of on our side," Perrin said. "He really understood the point of a university and did a really strong job in some very difficult times."
Perrin said it was unsettling that Fennebresque couldn't articulate a specific reason for Ross' departure. He tweeted that Friday's press conference led by the chairman was "22 minutes of doublespeak."
"I know a lot of people are really worried that this actually is a political question and obviously that is the issue that's on everyone's mind," Perrin added. "Fennebresque said it was not a political question in terms of Ds and Rs - Democrats and Republicans. But, a political question in terms of how they see the future, their vision of the university, it may be. That's certainly in the back of everybody's mind as a worry."
In recent years, political turmoil has been a feature of U.S. higher education in many states.
In 2012, at the University of Virginia, the board leader announced that the president, Teresa Sullivan, was out after only two years because of "philosophical differences" with the board. The event turned into a political crisis in Virginia, with the governor threatening to step in after an uproar by faculty, students and alumni. After a couple of weeks, the board reinstated Sullivan.
Last year, a similar situation played out in Texas, when the president of the flagship campus at the University of Texas, William Powers Jr., was nearly ousted by the system leader, reportedly influenced by the governor and other political leaders. Powers refused and ultimately was allowed to remain in the job for another year.
Difficult time to hire
Fred Eshelman, a former board member and prominent Republican donor, said he was blindsided by the UNC board's decision. In an email, he wrote that he viewed Ross' departure as a big loss.
"I have a lot of respect for President Ross, and he has navigated some very rough waters over the last few years," wrote Eshelman, an entrepreneur who recently gave $100 million to UNC-CH's pharmacy school. At the December ceremony, he and Ross joked that they almost came to blows while crafting the strategic plan.
For some, Ross' exit, while disappointing, was bound to happen.
Burley Mitchell Jr., a Democrat and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said the UNC board, while not overtly political, is just an extension of the state political leadership, which has undergone a sea change.
"You started seeing the new team, I'll call it, come onto the board, and it's quite natural," he said. "After this last election, they've got the governor's office, the Senate and the House and the courts. It's just natural, no great conspiracy, nothing Machiavellian, but people are going to appoint their own people that they have confidence in."
Mitchell, who as a board member in 2010 nominated Ross as president, said he didn't agree with the decision to push him out. But he hoped the board would just look for the best candidate possible to follow Ross.
Brent Barringer, a Cary attorney and former board member, said he was puzzled by the timing of Ross' departure. While UNC presidents have customarily retired by age 65, Barringer said it was time to rethink that because many productive people work beyond that age. Fennebresque has said Ross' age was not a factor.
In addition, Barringer said, it will be difficult to hire a new president to start in the middle of an academic year.
"You've got to be troubled and concerned about the quality of the applicant pool under these circumstances," said Barringer, a Republican.
The board may be inclined to go with a candidate outside academia. Last week, a board committee discussed a new policy that would include a Board of Governors member on chancellor search committees to encourage consideration of nontraditional candidates from business, the military or nonprofit sectors.
Once in place, the new president will almost certainly have a more stable environment than Ross faced with a recession, an academic/athletics scandal at UNC-CH and a political revolution. A predictable economy and political establishment will provide a better environment for a new administration.
"Hopefully that new person, the new president, would be able to focus on the financial and structural challenges that are inherent and unique to academic institutions and higher education generally," Barringer said.
If that next president is a Republican, he or she may find smooth sailing with the power structure in Raleigh.
"You assume that when somebody whose philosophy is closer to theirs comes and says this is a real need, they will give it more credibility," said Mitchell, whose brother, Champ, serves on the current UNC board.
"I just hope over time that the new Board of Governors and the new legislature will come to realize just how absolutely crucial it is that we maintain the university," Mitchell added. "It has been the thing that has brought us from back of the pack as recently as the 1950s on up to where we are today. We don't want to start backsliding."