Ousting Ross undermines UNC

Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, has said repeatedly that he believes he has worked well with the Board of Governors since the board was turned over to Republicans after the GOP swept to power in the General Assembly.

But rumors have circulated that board members wanted a change, not because Ross has performed poorly but because he has long been associated with the Democratic-dominated power players in the state. Former Gov. Jim Hunt named him a judge when Ross was in his 30s, and Ross has been connected to other leading Democrats over the last 30 years, but not active in politics.

Ross ran the Administrative Office of the Courts, headed the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and was president of his alma mater, Davidson College, when he assumed the UNC presidency on Jan. 1, 2011. He has been honored by his peers in the legal profession, has a long-standing reputation as a soft-spoken, thoughtful administrator and has taken the UNC system through severe budget cuts.

But now the GOP-led Board of Governors has given him just one more year in the job, an ending Ross did not want – despite some attempts to smooth over this move.

It’s true that at 65, Ross will be the age of recent presidents when they retired. But three of those presidents, William Friday, C.D. Spangler Jr. and Molly Broad, had longer tenures than Ross, and his predecessor, Erskine Bowles, had a high-powered business career and was called upon by President Obama to help tackle the nation’s financial challenges.

Ross doesn’t want to go, insiders say. This is politics, pure and simple. Republicans have control of the legislature and the governor’s office, and now in their view their control is complete with the Board of Governors.

This maneuver will be unsettling to all branches of the UNC system and to alumni. The university is an academic, not a political institution, and its leaders have a right to expect some measure of protection from politics. UNC-Chapel Hill, whose liberal image has long annoyed Republicans, should be especially worried, because Ross was diplomatic enough with his board to shield UNC-CH a little, particularly with the disgraceful athletics-academic scandal that seems to be forever unfolding on the campus.

And what will this say to the residents of North Carolina, who though they may differ on politics surely want their university system to be insulated from it? Will Republicans now go hunting the heads of chancellors and faculty members they view as too liberal or outspoken?

Will they install in the president’s office a more politically connected leader to their liking? The name of wealthy businessman Art Pope, a founder of conservative foundations and think tanks and a heavy contributor to GOP conservatives, has come up as the successor-of-choice for Ross. A former state budget director, Pope has contributed to many GOP candidates, and he is friendly with many BOG members.

The UNC system is going to be on edge for a while. The forced exit of a sound president is disquieting. This is a bad decision made for all the wrong reasons.