John Drescher

Drescher: UNC board chair struggles again

John Fennebresque, on a balcony at his office in Charlotte in April 2015.
John Fennebresque, on a balcony at his office in Charlotte in April 2015. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

You can perhaps get away with acting like a bully if you are brilliant or visionary.

There isn’t any evidence that John Fennebresque, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, is either of those, at least when it comes to higher education.

It was Fennebresque who, after forcing Tom Ross’ retirement as president of the UNC system, said: “We want a change agent but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change.” So much for the vision thing.

Fennebresque has acknowledged he botched his conversation that led to Ross’ scheduled departure and called the media conference that followed “a fiasco.”

Now Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer, again has worked his way into a fix. His board needs to hire a new president for the 17-campus UNC system. Several members of the board, fellow Republicans, are unhappy, saying Fennebresque isn’t sharing information and is bulldozing them. Some want a new chairman.

For anyone who’s followed Fennebresque’s career, this isn’t a surprise.

Finesse? Patience? Tact? That’s not Fennebresque.

“His biggest challenge – the selection of a new president – is still to come,” Pam Kelley of The Charlotte Observer wrote in May in a revealing profile that also was published in The News & Observer. “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.”

Finesse? Patience? Tact? That’s not Fennebresque, whose style contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Peter Hans of Raleigh, who is thoughtful, patient and a good listener.

Looking back, it’s difficult to see how Fennebresque, known to some friends as “Czar,” was elected chairman. Perhaps his colleagues felt like they needed a hard-driving SOB who could push the university system to new heights.

They got the SOB but not, so far, the new heights.

“While I understand some Board members may desire more details, the Board of Governors has and will continue to follow the search protocol recommended by our professional search firm and adopted by the full Board,” Fennebresque emailed me.

“The Board also voted to appoint more than a third of our members to represent us and serve as our search committee. It is crucial that we maintain confidentiality around the search to ensure we get the best candidates possible for the job. However, we certainly have and will continue to look for ways to share all appropriate information and involve every board member in the process to the full extent possible.”

Fennebresque is a successful lawyer capable of great generosity. He’s been a leader in Charlotte civic life for decades. Many of his friends and associates are loyal to him.

We all have our demons. Fennebresque, 68, has been working on his for a long time. In 1992, he was asked to step down as managing partner of Moore & Van Allen after he alienated colleagues who said he ran the firm like he owned it. It was a pivotal moment in his career.

The dust-up about Ross’ departure provided another opportunity for Fennebresque to step back, take a deep breath, listen and learn. That didn’t happen. The education of John Fennebresque continues. The demons, apparently, cannot be conquered.

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