The continuing education of John Fennebresque

John Fennebresque, on a balcony at his McGuireWoods office on Tryon Street, has been a powerful player in civic life since he arrived in Charlotte in 1973.
John Fennebresque, on a balcony at his McGuireWoods office on Tryon Street, has been a powerful player in civic life since he arrived in Charlotte in 1973.

John Fennebresque, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, is killing a few minutes, chatting with board members on his Charlotte law firm’s 30th floor while awaiting several others who are coming by private plane. The agenda on this March morning: Nominate a committee to search for North Carolina’s next university system president.

Fennebresque looks distinguished with his silvering hair, white shirt, bespoke charcoal suit. But he hasn’t slept well. For months, since he initiated the effort to replace UNC system President Tom Ross, good sleep has eluded him.

In Charlotte, Fennebresque has long been known as a complicated character. He’s a successful corporate lawyer who counts former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl among his clients, but he’s also a jokester who quotes the movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House” with great facility. He’s driven, witty and generous, but he sometimes acts like a jerk. He has many fans. He has also ticked off a lot of people.

Last year, Fennebresque, 68, became chairman of the Board of Governors, which sets policy for the state’s 17 campuses. So far, his tenure has been marked by controversial board decisions to oust Ross and shut down three campus centers linked to liberal causes. And since Fennebresque is the man in charge, he has become the face of what critics see as a Republican assault on academic freedom, the liberal arts and the public good that North Carolina’s universities provide.

He says his critics are mistaken.

“Promise to make it clear I love the university system,” Fennebresque says.

But he admits that some recent difficulties are of his own making, including his most public misstep, the January news conference after Ross’ retirement announcement. A professor dubbed the event “22 minutes of doublespeak.” Fennebresque himself describes it as “a fiasco.”

His biggest challenge – the selection of a new president – is still to come. As head of a 32-member board that’s strongly opinionated, he needs political finesse, patience and tact, qualities often lacking in his past endeavors.

Ross, a Democrat, came to the university system in 2011 after serving as president of Davidson College. Though he led in a time of major legislative budget cuts, he was generally seen as successful. But he took the job just as Republicans gained control of the legislature. Their far-reaching agenda includes rethinking the $9 billion university system viewed for decades as one of North Carolina’s proudest achievements.

Since then, as terms on the Board of Governors have ended, legislators have appointed new members, transforming the board from majority Democrat to mostly Republican with a couple of politically unaffiliated members. Many had hoped Ross, who turns 65 in June, would retire quietly. But when Fennebresque informed Ross, their meeting went badly. At the news conference a week later, Ross made it clear he wasn’t going willingly. Fennebresque was testy with reporters. He denied politics was involved: “I said no. Really clearly. And it’s a short word.” He also praised Ross lavishly.

But he never answered the obvious question: If the man is so great, why get rid of him?

With no explanation of what the board wanted to achieve, critics assumed Fennebresque was following the Republican legislature’s marching orders. They watched what they perceived as other political attacks. In February, the board shut campus centers dedicated to poverty, voter engagement and the environment. In March, a state senator introduced a bill, now shelved, that would double faculty teaching loads. Critics worried the next president could be Art Pope, Gov. Pat McCrory’sformer state budget director and a financier on the political right.

Fennebresque is trying to calm the waters.

In April, he took questions from a group of UNC-Chapel Hill professors for nearly three hours. In March, he told the Legislative Black Caucus he supported the state’s five historically black universities, especially Elizabeth City State, which has been threatened with closure. He has responded to dozens of people who sent him angry email.

He still defends closing the three campus centers. He says the board used the same criteria to review 240 centers across the system. Eight chose to close, and the board closed three after determining their work didn’t require a formal center. The board took flak for delving into campus-level policies, but he says he doesn’t see that happening again.

Fennebresque has begun talking more about the circumstances surrounding Ross’ departure. First off: “I promise on a stack of Bibles I don’t hear from any of the people in Raleigh about what to do,” he said in a recent interview. “And I would be very, very angry if somebody tried to do that with me.”

Most of all, he’s working obsessively, treating his unpaid chairman position like a full-time job. He sends email at all hours and reads the Chronicle of Higher Education when he’s sleepless at 3 a.m. He rented a Raleigh apartment so he can spend more time there.

Throwing himself into his work is what he always does, Fennebresque says, when he fears he might fail. It’s what he’s done ever since he met his wife, Frances, when they were students at UNC. That’s when he decided, for the first time in his life, that he very much wanted to succeed.

From Oyster Bay to UNC

In April, Fennebresque attended a Charlotte Chamber meeting to give an update on the university system. It was his belief, he told the auditorium full of city leaders, that the university system president’s job is more important than the governor’s. He also weighed in on the 2016 governor’s race, noting that he planned to vote for Pat McCrory, the incumbent Republican.

The next day, he wondered whether he said too much. “Clearly, I need a handler.”

Fennebresque’s put-it-out-there style is one of the things McColl, retired president of Bank of America, admires about the man who’s both his friend and lawyer. Fennebresque isn’t always politic, McColl says, but he’s always honest. “If he’s not skillful with the press, and he is not, that doesn’t make him a bad person.”

The two men met soon after Fennebresque arrived in Charlotte in 1973 for his first job, a position with Moore & Van Allen, then a 10-person law firm. He worked all the time, drumming up business by courting bank loan officers over lunches at the Charlotte City Club. He also recruited many talented lawyers and Moore & Van Allen became a legal force.

Fennebresque had only recently acquired his work ethic. He’d been a lousy student during high school and most of college at Chapel Hill. “I was a great disappointment to my parents,” he says.

He had come from wealth. His late father, John D. Fennebresque, was a Yale graduate and Mobil Oil executive. The family lived in Oyster Bay on Long Island, in a house that would later be purchased by Billy Joel, who would feature the property on his “Glass Houses” album cover. Fennebresque was, by his own admission, “spoiled rotten.”

After graduating from Choate, a Connecticut prep school, he went to Chapel Hill, mostly because he didn’t get into Yale. He majored in history and continued to underperform. But a senior year blind date with Frances Woltz, an education major from Mount Airy, changed his life. Two months later, they were engaged, and he was a newly serious student.

Fennebresque did well in law school at Vanderbilt. He’s not sure why it took him so long to apply himself. “It could have been, ‘If I don’t try, I won’t fail.’ I don’t know.”

His brother, Kim Fennebresque, a New York investment banker, believes he and his brother inherited their drive from their father, who died of a heart attack at 54, when John Fennebresque was in law school.

This year, John and Frances celebrate their 45th anniversary. Kim Fennebresque credits Frances for softening his brother. “I think Frances has helped him know when speaking his mind has been hurtful.”

During a recent interview at their Myers Park condo, Fennebresque insisted on including Frances – his handler, so to speak. They sat side by side on a light-green sofa. Several times, she defended his actions. Later, he said: “Isn’t she wonderful?”

Largesse and impatience

Fennebresque became managing partner at Moore & Van Allen in 1987, but he alienated colleagues who said he ran the firm like he owned it. Some also disliked his fraternity-house humor. He bestowed nicknames – Deals, Hummer, The Dog – on some lawyers, but women associates weren’t among them. In 1992, he was asked to step down as managing partner.

The setback was devastating, he says, but instructive. “One of my real weaknesses is impatience. And that has caused me great angst in my adult life, because I’m a results person, not a process person. In my brain, I see the objective. I see a straight line, and I go to it. Real life is not that simple in many instances.”

The next year, he started his own firm, which later merged with McGuireWoods, now one of the nation’s largest law firms. In 1999, he made news again as chairman of a Charlotte committee searching for a new arena site. He secretly flew to New York and encouraged Michael Jordan to buy the Charlotte Hornets. Not much came of that meeting, except complaints from some Charlotte City Council members that Fennebresque shouldn’t have done it in secret and that it wasn’t part of his job, anyway.

Today, Fennebresque is vice chairman of McGuireWoods. He can still be abrupt – “He is very direct, but that’s what I love about him,” says Richard Cullen, McGuireWoods’ chairman – but he’s also known for supporting co-workers, and for quietly writing a check when he learns of a staff member with a financial emergency. “There are people on our staff who would die for him,” says Larry Dagenhart, a law partner.

In fact, for every story about Fennebresque stepping out of line, friends recall acts of kindness.

In 2011, Ginny Amendum, then president of Thompson Child & Family Focus, recruited Fennebresque to serve as her “ask” person at the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser.

Fennebresque had worked for several years with the organization, which serves at-risk children. By the day of the luncheon, he says he’d never been more nervous about a speech, “thinking about all the kids that won’t get the help they need if I screw this up.” In the end, he tossed his written remarks, talked off the cuff, and helped raise $1.3 million, breaking Thompson’s record.

“I loved John Fennebresque,” Amendum says, “and I love him right up to today.”

Path to a fiasco

Fennebresque, a self-described moderate Republican who never votes a straight-party ticket, was elected to the Board of Governors in 2011.

Since 2010, he has donated more than $216,000 to Republican candidates, including North Carolina legislators. He says he gave to legislators “to make sure I have an audience” when lobbying for the system. He sought the chairmanship last year because, he says, “I wanted to do something toward the end of my career that would make a difference to the whole state.”

When new Board of Governors members arrived in 2013, Fennebresque says about a dozen immediately wanted a new president. By fall 2014, about 25 of 32 wanted a change. “This new board wanted its own person,” he says.

Fennebresque consulted Erskine Bowles, the UNC system’s previous president. Bowles says he wasn’t surprised, because new boards often want their own leaders. But he predicted Ross would be surprised, and he warned Fennebresque “it would be really difficult to find a better leader than Tom.”

When Fennebresque went to Ross’ office in January, he had alerted only a handful of board members. He wanted the change to look like Ross’ decision, he says. He’d been advised to take another board member with him, but he went alone. He didn’t want Ross to feel ganged up on.

In an interview, Ross said he was surprised when Fennebresque brought up a leadership change. He had clearly told search committee members in 2010 that he wasn’t interested in the job if they wanted him to retire at 65. He says they told him “they were looking for someone for seven to 10 years.” Also, he says, after coming through a tough economic time, “it was my own assessment it wasn’t the right time to make a transition.”

Fennebresque says he wasn’t aware of Ross’ earlier conversations with board members. And despite Bowles’ warning, he was shocked that Ross was surprised. UNC system presidents have followed an informal tradition of retirement at 65, even though age discrimination laws prohibit mandatory retirement. Fennebresque says he expected to have subsequent conversations. But by early the next week, Ross had retained a lawyer.

Meanwhile, Frances Fennebresque had become seriously ill. Fennebresque shuttled between Chapel Hill and Charlotte. Within days, the university system had a contract with Ross that set retirement in January 2016. And Frances, who has since recovered, was in surgery for pancreatitis.

Ross’ retirement was made public on Jan. 16, with the board voting 31-1 to approve his contract. The awkward news conference with Fennebresque and Ross followed. Though the vote suggested solidarity, some board members were unhappy that they’d only learned of Fennebresque’s actions upon arriving in Chapel Hill.

Marty Kotis of Greensboro, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he didn’t have enough time to consider the action and didn’t think Fennebresque “should take pretty serious actions without the full consent of the board.”

Fennebresque says now it was a mistake to speak to Ross by himself. Also, he should have informed the entire board first. During the news conference, he was sleep-deprived and anxious about his wife. He was so focused on saying nice things about Ross that he neglected to address the reason for the change.

“So,” he says, “I’d say it was a fiasco.”

Searching for a visionary

News of Ross’ forced retirement produced harsh criticism of Fennebresque and the Board of Governors. An online petition to reinstate Ross attracted more than 2,700 signatures. Fennebresque got hate mail. The criticism has hurt. He has repeatedly joked about finding someone who’ll say nice things about him for this article, the assumption being that it would be difficult.

Ross, on the other hand, has received standing ovations at recent events. He has argued in recent speeches that American higher education is heading in the wrong direction, with too much focus on metrics and job preparation, too little on the value of teaching students to think and communicate effectively.

The issues Ross raises worry many people, including Charlotte lawyer Ray Farris, a former Board of Governors member who voices a common refrain: “They have the right to change the president. It’s just that I want to know the direction they want to take the university.”

One reason that direction seems nebulous is that members aren’t of one mind. Generally, they agree that a new leader mustn’t settle for the status quo, and though no one criticizes Ross, what’s unsaid is that they believe Ross represents the status quo.

Some might consider closing or consolidating campuses. Some might agree with McCrory, who has argued that universities shouldn’t be subsidizing courses – Swahili, gender studies – that don’t lead directly to jobs.

Fennebresque says these aren’t his views. He wants a visionary president, someone who can predict what campuses should be doing in a decade and move toward that goal. He doesn’t care if the person is a Democrat or Republican, from academia or the business world.

He also wants to cut costs by reducing program duplication and axing administrative positions, but he describes himself as “a big believer in liberal arts.” He thinks the faculty deserves a raise.

North Carolina’s tuition is still below the national average, but it has risen 52 percent since 2008-2009, largely to fill the hole created by legislative budget cuts. Like Ross, Fennebresque is adamant that the cuts must stop. “If the University of North Carolina is allowed to deteriorate, it will hurt the prosperity of this state for a long, long time.”

The presidential search committee’s goal is to find a new leader who could start by January 2016, when Ross’ contract ends.

At least until the board selects a new UNC system president, questions about Fennebresque’s motives will continue. Tamar Birckhead, a UNC law professor who helped launch the online petition to reinstate Ross, says it’s “potentially heartening” to hear Fennebresque support the liberal arts, but she’ll wait to see how words translate into action.

Hannah Gage, a Democrat and former board chairwoman who remains a nonvoting member, says she believes Fennebresque is “trying really hard to set things right and do good work and do the right thing for the university and the state. Everything we do will be filtered through a partisan lens now, and I think John understands that.”

One thing Fennebresque says he can guarantee: The new president won’t be Art Pope.

Of course, that’s not something he can actually promise, because he doesn’t control all the votes.

“Well,” he replies, “I act like I do sometimes.”

John Fennebresque may be anxious and sleep-deprived, worried about the UNC system and his own legacy. But for a moment, he laughs.

Kelley: 704 358-5271

John Fennebresque

Family: Married to Frances Woltz Fennebresque. Children: Amy Fennebresque Burleson, John Jr., Frances Fennebresque Hankins, Billy. Seven grandchildren.

Professional: Vice chairman at McGuireWoods.

Education: B.A. in history, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1970; J.D., Vanderbilt Law Review, Vanderbilt University, 1973.

Community and political work: Served on boards of Habitat for Humanity, Queens College of Charlotte, the Mint Museum, United Way of the Central Carolinas, Thompson Child & Family Focus Foundation. Led Charlotte’s New Arena Committee and Charlotte Regional Sports Commission in the 1990s and chaired Charlotte Latin’s board of trustees from 1987 to 1995. Fundraiser for numerous Republican candidates. Served on the UNC Board of Governors from 1995 to 1999 and from 2011 to the present. Became chairman in 2014. Re-elected to the board in March by the state Senate.

Nicknames: His wife is Bunny. Longtime friends know Fennebresque as Tudor, a name his family bestowed at birth. He’s also known as Czar, which he says he adopted when Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot appointed him chairman of Charlotte’s sports commission.

Recent reading: Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.” He found the nonfiction story of sexual assaults on and around the University of Montana’s campus so important that he purchased copies for the entire board.

Pam Kelley