Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday expressed anger over the forced departure of UNC system President Tom Ross and worry over the future of public higher education in North Carolina.
Tension was high at a packed Faculty Council meeting in Wilson Library as professors openly criticized the UNC Board of Governors’ action last week to push out Ross.
But they weren’t sure how to proceed. Some faculty urged patience as the other 16 campuses in the UNC system weigh the issue. Others suggested that the Chapel Hill campus, near the system’s headquarters, should lead the way in expressing concern.
History professor Lloyd Kramer said he was struck by “a kind of anger or undirected sense of crisis” at the meeting. He suggested UNC-CH ask the UNC system’s faculty body to pass a resolution asking the UNC system board why it forced the departure of Ross, who will step down next January.
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“We have to affirm our own concerns, our own priorities and our own vision for the university, and that’s what the flagship should do,” Kramer said, as applause erupted in the heavily attended meeting.
No vote was taken because of procedural rules that provide for notice before major resolutions. But momentum built for the faculty to take a stand.
Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor, posed a question to UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt: “Do you have faith that this Board of Governors shares those values of being a world-class university system for the public of North Carolina?”
She answered, “I do.” Then she added: “The overwhelming perspective I am hearing right now is that they want to be speaking to the legislature about this being a time to invest in your university, that our great universities are the reason this state has thrived.”
Pete Andrews, a professor of environmental policy, said he hoped the Board of Governors wouldn’t move into a new era of micromanagement on campus-level and academic decisions. He said the UNC system itself “is not a degree-granting institution.”
“It is simply an oversight umbrella mechanism created for particular reasons,” he said.
The UNC system board is reviewing research centers and institutes throughout the system in what may be a prelude to budget cuts. Some critics have charged that the action by the Republican-dominated board is a political exercise.
Harry Watson, a history professor, held up a letter that has been circulating among faculty. In reading a few snippets, he said, quoting the letter’s author: “Last night, I was told that faculty should now assume that public higher education in North Carolina is under full assault.”
Stephen Leonard, a UNC-CH political science professor and chairman of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said the letter was one he had sent to colleagues privately.
Leonard said there is a diversity of opinion among faculty and that he was unsure whether faculty bodies on other UNC campuses would weigh in on the matter. He suggested UNC-CH move slowly and allow sister campuses to find their voice, “before we suck all the oxygen out of the room.”
Many have suggested that Ross, who had ties to North Carolina’s Democratic establishment, was shown the door for political reasons. Board Chairman John Fennebresque has strongly denied that. He also praised Ross’ performance and said the board’s action had nothing to do with Ross’ age. The president will turn 65 this year – the age at which past presidents of the modern system have retired.
As president, Ross is in charge of overseeing the sprawling UNC system that includes 16 university campuses and a residential science and math high school. One of the president’s major responsibilities is crafting a budget for the system’s schools and advocating for funding with the legislature.
‘Dragged off stage’
Some at Friday’s meeting, which ran more than two hours, asked about the search for Ross’ successor and whether faculty would have input into the process. Folt said she expected there would be wide representation as the board seeks to hire a new leader.
Eric Muller, a law professor, said he hoped faculty and students at all campuses would engage the UNC system board in a conversation about the qualities needed in Ross’ successor.
“It’s challenging to talk about the process by which a new leader will be selected and the values that that new leader should represent, when the prior leader has been in effect dragged off stage moments before, without an explanation,” Muller said.
Folt said it is important to find common ground during a presidential transition and to advocate for the university. “I’m going to keep a positive attitude going forward,” she said.
Provost Jim Dean agreed that the future should be the focus and that the Chapel Hill campus could have an important role in shaping the search.
“Not getting into the content of the decision at all or speculating on the motives for the decision,” he said, “it’s very clear that the board does have the right to make a decision about the future.”
Hodding Carter III, a recently retired professor, took issue with Folt and Dean’s focus. He said by his research there had been about 50 firings of university presidents in this country in the past 15 years. In all of those, “you knew why they were fired,” he said.
“It does us no good to pretend that the causes for his firing are not relevant to the future,” he said. “If you think they aren’t, I pity the future.”