The choice of a new president for the University of North Carolina system in late 2010 seemed like another good break for the people’s university. The new president was broadly experienced, a former Superior Court judge. And the president-designate had run the Administrative Office of the Courts. He had been widely respected in that job, as he had in his others, as the head of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, where he oversaw the doing of much good for the people of the state, and as president of his alma mater, Davidson College.
Tom Ross is a soft-spoken fellow with gracious manners and a reputation for being without one of the large egos that sometimes are attached to people who have had important jobs. He is not given to grand, sweeping phrases or bombast or even, though he’s been connected to prominent Democratic leaders, a hard-edged view of politics.
All that, I knew in 2010. But as was the case with every president or chancellor of my lifetime, the test in getting a sound opinion of any such leader rested in my view and in that of many others with a man who resided on a quiet residential street in Chapel Hill, in a modest home he’d bought long before his own retirement as UNC system president after 30 years.
In those retirement years, he had headed a large foundation, spearheaded a commission fighting the uphill battle to reform college athletics and been a sage in residence for university leaders both public and private, within and far beyond the boundaries of North Carolina.
That’s why for me and many others blessed to call him a friend and even a second dad, Bill Friday was the first call when something important happened in North Carolina.
And so we talked, not for the purpose of a newspaper editorial or column, but out of mutual interest in the future of the UNC system.
Tom Ross already had talked to him at that point.
I asked him what he thought of Ross.
“He is a nice fellow,” Friday said. “Genuine. Smart. He seems modest. I think he understands the university’s mission. But that’s not always enough. There are times when you have to take an unpopular stand, and the Board of Governors can be a challenge, getting along with all those different people. But he has the most important thing.”
What’s that? I asked him.
“There is steel in this man,” Bill Friday said.
Last week, the steel was tested and the man emerged from the test as strong and straight as ever, his reputation intact after four years as president, through budget cutting and the athletics/academic scandal at Chapel Hill and a tumultuous time when his governing board was turned over to inexperienced and in some cases, harshly partisan Republicans.
The steel remains, yes, even though that GOP-dominated board, perhaps to stick one more thumb in the eye of Democrats or even to set up one of their fellow Republicans as president, ousted Ross at UNC system president.
It was a low point in the history of the UNC system, and a dangerous precedent. No, this wasn’t about performance, board Chairman John Fennebresque said. No, it wasn’t politics. Then what was it? The explanation was muddled and a lot less than the people of North Carolina, who cherish their UNC system, deserve.
The speculation for months has been that board members wanted to hand the job to Art Pope, recently the budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory but a long-standing fixture in Republican politics, particularly of the hard-right variety. Pope’s not a one-dimensional figure by any means, generous with his millions to many worthy causes.
But in politics, he plays hard and he plays to win.
The problem is that Tom Ross, who’ll supposedly stay another year, did a good job. He managed through budget cuts with cooperation. And he never blamed politics. Asked by many how he would handle the new Republican board many months ago, he said he anticipated working with them. And that’s what he did.
The chancellors and faculty and boards of the UNC system’s campuses will never know how he shielded and protected them. Every president has to, and Ross did.
What happened to Ross, whose entire professional and personal life has been defined by integrity and success without compromising either, is truly an embarrassment to the state. The day it all happened, I was scrolling through my phone list and there it was, Bill Friday’s number. For the first time since he died in October of 2012, I was glad I couldn’t call him.