As the UNC Board of Governors prepared to meet Tuesday to discuss how they will select the next system president, questions continued to dog them about why they forced out Tom Ross.
A small group of UNC-Chapel Hill students met privately for an hour on Monday with board chairman John Fennebresque and Jim Holmes, the board member leading a review of centers and institutes across the 17-campus system. Among the concerns broached by the students was the question of why Ross, president of the system for four years, was pushed out before he was ready to retire.
As they met, dozens of people added their names to an online petition launched by a group calling itself United For NC. The signers are asking the UNC Board of Governors to reverse its decision and reinstate Ross. ( www.change.org/p/unc-board-of-governors-reinstate-tom-ross)
On Jan. 16, after a closed-door meeting about the timeline for the retirement, Ross, 64, said he was being forced to leave by next January, earlier than planned. Fennebresque has offered no specific reason for the decision, other than that the board thought it was time for a transition.
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Fennebresque has praised Ross and said neither age nor politics played a role in the decision.
The online petition contends otherwise: “This is a politically motivated attack by a radical board that values partisanship over responsible university governance. It is an attack on academic freedom. It is, ultimately, an attack on the UNC System, one of the finest public institutions of higher education in the world.”
UNC-Chapel Hill students Emilio Vicente and Shannon Brien, two of the three students who had an audience on Monday with Fennebresque and Holmes, said their meeting became strained when they asked about Ross.
Vicente recalled that they asked Fennebresque and Holmes why, if the decision had nothing to do with “Ross’s performance or ability to continue in the office,” students, faculty, administrators and others directly affected by the decision had not been consulted.
Fennebresque told the students that Ross and the board were on the same page, according to Vicente.
“If they are on the same page,” Vicente said afterward, “why are they so opposed to telling us what was behind this?”
Issues of power arose during the meeting, the students said. Brien read from a notepad on which she had written quotes from Fennebresque: “He said, ‘We are the Board of Governors. We’ve got all the power.’ ”
Fennebresque did not comment after the meeting. He offered a quick “no” when asked about the petition and whether the board would reconsider its action.