When the UNC Board of Governors acted in January to end the presidency of Tom Ross, board leaders insisted the decision was their own and had nothing to do with politics.
But there was never a substantive explanation for the change, other than it was time for new leadership. Ross was hired in 2010 by a board dominated by Democrats; four years later, the 32-member board had turned over with the Republican-led legislature and was almost completely Republican.
Now, as the search for the next UNC president is underway, it’s clear that the ouster of Ross, a Democrat, was cheered by several prominent conservatives, according to emails obtained through a public records request.
The News & Observer has requested UNC Board of Governors’ members’ emails regarding the board’s action this year. More than 300 pages have been released so far.
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Though previous UNC presidents customarily retired at 65, Ross had planned to stay on the job longer. The board voted Jan. 16 to push out Ross, now 65, early next year.
That day, several supportive emails and messages arrived in the inbox of board Chairman John Fennebresque. “John – this is certainly good news,” wrote U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Republican from Raleigh. “I know you will find a great replacement. Best, g.”
“Support your getting new leadership and hope it will be someone who will ask pertinent questions and help reshape the system,” wrote Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk, in an email with the subject line, “Thank you for what you are doing on the Board of Governors.”
Also that day, several Republican legislators asked Fennebresque to return their calls, including Senate leader Phil Berger, as well as Sens. Bob Rucho and Jeff Tarte. Former state budget director, businessman and GOP benefactor Art Pope called, too.
Three days earlier, on Jan. 13, Berger had left a message, loosely summarized in an email from a staffer at Fennebresque’s office. “Had conference call yesterday. He feels appropriate progress is proposed in reference to those institutes. It seems like everyone is in a good state. Headed in right direction. Interested to talk about Tom Ross situation. Thanks.”
“Those institutes” apparently refers to centers and institutes across the UNC system, which, at the time were under scrutiny by the board. In February, the board abolished three university-based centers, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose director, Gene Nichol, had been an outspoken critic of the Republican leadership in Raleigh.
Fennebresque, in an interview this week, maintains that there was no directive from any politician or a political motive for the board’s decision on Ross.
“I didn’t think of the support as being particularly partisan,” Fennebresque said of the emails. “I certainly heard from Republicans and Democrats that were unhappy, and a few people were happy. I guess 99 percent of the people didn’t care.”
The chairman said he did not recall having a conversation with Berger about the decision. “He never said ‘I want you to do this,’ and I never asked his opinion on doing anything,” Fennebresque said.
It wasn’t my call, but I certainly support what they did.
State Senate leader Phil Berger, Republican from Eden
Berger said last week that he didn’t remember the conversations with Fennebresque but acknowledged it was likely to ask, “is something going on with that, what’s happening, where are we – that sort of thing.”
“I think they made the right decision,” Berger added. “It was their decision. It wasn’t my call, but I certainly support what they did.”
Fennebresque said he heard from more opponents than supporters of the action. At the time, he wrote in an email to Foxx: “Virginia, you would not believe the level of antipathy aimed at me and the BOG by academic types and certain public officials, plus the media, of course. This is the right thing for the UNC System, and we are treating President Ross, someone I care about, extremely fairly. I am so grateful to you for your support.”
The board gave Ross a contract of about a year, with a salary increase to $600,000, plus a faculty position and a year of research leave after his presidency at 50 percent of the salary.
The board’s move to replace Ross provoked an outcry from faculty and others. Several alumni and citizens lodged complaints with board members. At least one prominent conservative objected.
Fred Eshelman of Wilmington, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur, UNC benefactor and Republican donor, emailed his thoughts to Fennebresque. “Blind-sided by this one,” wrote Eshelman, who stepped down from the Board of Governors last year. “Chronicle of Higher Ed called me for comments. You guys may not like what I said. I think it’s a real loss, particularly rolled out the way it was. Anyway, let’s chat sometime if you care to. I hope some real careful thinking will go into his replacement.”
A Sanford resident and UNC alumna, Elizabeth Winstead, wrote that she was gravely disappointed. She said she had watched Fennebresque’s press conference, and she quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.’ From my perspective, your explanation of President Ross’s departure makes no sense. Do not praise President Ross and then offer no justification for his departure. It insults the intelligence of all North Carolinians. Today is a sad day for higher education in North Carolina.”
Rather than respond to emails, Fennebresque called some of the critics to talk about the decision. He planned to have lunch with a UNC faculty member, Daniel Gitterman, who wrote that watching the press conference was “the single most disappointing experience in my almost 15-year career at Carolina.”
Gitterman continued: “There is no plausible explanation for a change in leadership at this time, and I fear that this will have a chilling effect on our university community for years to come.”
Faculty became increasingly distressed and began to organize against the board. Letters and resolutions began to circulate.
On Jan. 21, UNC Faculty Assembly leader Steve Leonard had written an email to faculty around the system with the subject line “CRITICAL/URGENT! I have very, very bad news. ...”
Leonard addressed fellow faculty as “Comrades” and went on to write, “It pains me very, very deeply to say this: there is very little hope this Board can be turned without mounting an all-out assault in opposition to the destruction of public higher education in North Carolina.”
He proceeded to outline a strategy to educate the public about the university’s importance and to solicit alumni support. He suggested that UNC and N.C. State not take the lead role, as that would be “dismissed in Raleigh as the carping of spoiled professors.”
Ross didn’t want any part of a battle. His chief of staff, Kevin FitzGerald, wrote to Leonard and another professor asking faculty to stand down.
“President Ross cares deeply about the university and is committed to actively leading it during the coming year,” FitzGerald wrote. “Any negative action toward the Board of Governors could be counterproductive to the President’s ability to lead effectively. This is why he requests that no action be taken.”
FitzGerald then informed Fennebresque and the board’s vice chairman, Lou Bissette of Asheville, reiterating Ross’ “commitment to actively and constructively lead the University this year.”
Fennebresque responded, “I know Tom will be ‘all in’ for UNC. He has the full support of our Board and I predict a very successful 2015.”
Word of the faculty unrest reached Parks Griffin, a Wilmington businessman who was chairman of Gov. Pat McCrory’s inaugural committee. He emailed several UNC board members to warn them that faculty were “preparing to blast you guys.” He also expressed concern about the makeup of the chancellor search committee at UNC Wilmington.
“The way Ross stacked the committee, there is no chance a conservative makes it to the final cut. ...,” Griffin wrote to board members Bob Rippy, Raiford Trask, Steven Long, Henry Hinton and Tommy Harrelson. “This will be Ross’ parting shot. There are simply too many good conservatives out there for us to go down this trail again. Is it unreasonable for us to ask for just 1 of 17 campuses to have a non-liberal?!? – where is the diversity? can’t we please have one in our favor for once.”
Ross did not appoint the UNCW search committee. That was done by the campus Board of Trustees.
Ross’ request to faculty did not stop faculty Senate resolutions around the UNC system endorsing the president and calling on the Board of Governors to “articulate the rationale for their stated need for a ‘transition in leadership,’ a transition that implies a change in direction that has neither been discussed nor vetted with campus leadership, faculty, or the people of North Carolina.”
That rationale never was publicly articulated, and search consultants would later say that prospective new leaders would want to understand where the board wanted the university to go.
Foxx, the congresswoman, was asked this week what she meant when she wrote about the need to “reshape the system.” She released a statement: “This is one of the most exciting and pioneering periods in the history of higher education, and the opportunities to modernize and re-imagine how education and coursework can be delivered are too many to count.” Foxx is chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Ross, a former judge and Davidson College president, had collaborated with Eshelman, the former board member, to craft a five-year blueprint adopted by the board in 2013. Its goal was raising the percentage of North Carolina adults with a four-year degree from 29 to 32 percent. It also pushed for more online education, efficiency and key research areas deemed important to the state’s economy.
Former board chair Hannah Gage called it “the best strategic plan the university has ever had.”
Gage, a Democrat who led the board when Ross was hired, told Fennebresque on the day of the Ross decision that she felt compelled to say something about it – despite the board’s self-imposed gag order for members who took part in the two-hour closed session.
She would release a statement to The News & Observer, saying she disagreed with the board’s action but respected its prerogative to make a leadership change. She praised Ross for dealing with budget cuts, political transitions, athletic and academic scandals, and a “very new and sometimes difficult board.”
Gage said it was time to support the president, “while at the same time hoping we can find his equal.”
She sent her comments to Fennebresque, who wrote that “it is not helpful at all.”
But there was no ill will, apparently. Fennebresque wrote to Bissette, the vice chairman: “She is my friend. She can say whatever she wants. She did not need to say ‘…And hope we find Tom’s equal in our search.’ I love Hannah!”
Bissette also offered reassurance. “Your comments were fine,” Bissette wrote to Gage. “We knew what the media would do with the story. It is how they sell their product as we have seen with the four year campaign to discredit UNC CH.”
And, Bissette added: “I believe we were trying to do the right thing in attempting to begin a dialogue on succession planning. This is an important part of any Board’s responsibility. This may have gotten a little ahead of itself but no time would have been a good time to address it in the full public disclosure world in which we live.”
Pretty quickly, the emails among board members turned to the structure of the search committee. Search firms began to contact board leaders, offering their services. Individuals began to email their suggestions for Ross’ successor.
The process of finding the next president is now well along, with the search committee scheduled to meet Sept. 1. The selection is expected to be announced in the fall.
Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed.
Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559
Excerpts from emails
Steve Long, UNC Board of Governors member, to Chairman John Fennebresque on Jan. 19:
“I have heard positive feedback about the actions taken last week and wanted to let you know that I appreciate your leadership and the work you did in a difficult situation. The majority of the Board is behind you and supports you and I believe that the university really does have a bright future.”
Peter Reichard, friend of Fennebresque, wrote on Jan. 21: “There are those who think this is being teed up for Art Pope....”
Fennebresque responded to Reichard: “Told press not ever going to be Art Pope. Told Art, too. Let me say it to you. We will not consider Art for the job.”
UNC alumna and parent, Maureen Anne Costello Dwyer, to board members, Jan. 26: “On our family’s behalf, I am writing to express our extreme concern and confusion regarding the UNC Board of Governor’s recent actions regarding UNC President Tom Ross. As supporters of UNC and taxpayers in NC, we feel we, and everyone else in this state, deserves to know more specifically the reasons for the Board’s decision. Given the extremely limited and evasive information provided by Mr. Fennebresque in the news conference, it is incredibly difficult not to conclude that it is due primarily to politics and party affiliations.”
UNC supporter Patrick Walters to Fennebresque, Feb. 20: “I’m concerned (as are many others) about the abrupt dismissal of Tom Ross. From all indications he was doing a great job. Can you please explain in plain, simple, and honest terms why he was dismissed? If it’s because of differences in political ideology, then please just tell us.”
Alumnus and employee Dr. Justin Johnson to Fennebresque, Feb. 19: “...I increasingly worry about the underlying political nature of decisions being made to manage the university system, more specifically the firing of Tom Ross and the closing of the Poverty Center. Without explicitly stated reasons behind these decisions, one is left to assume. As a citizen of this state, an employee of the hospital, and a graduate of The University, I am writing to better understand why (A) Tom Ross was forced to resign and, (B), The Poverty Center was recommended to be closed. I know that management of a University system is a difficult task and I don’t envy your positions – you all work tireless hours making tough calls on a budget that is increasingly tight. But I think transparency is an important piece of managing a system this broad, especially when that system is funded by tax-payers like me.”