Jim Jenkins

Ah, politics after all on UNC board

It didn’t appear the skies could get any darker over the January decision by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to replace Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system. But now, thanks to a report from The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill, based on a pubic records request for emails among board members, it’s pitch black out there.

At the time, in one of the most embarrassing press conferences in memory, board Chairman John Fennebresque clumsily tried to explain why he and other board members (Republicans who replaced incumbent Democrats) wanted Ross out. Only he couldn’t do it. Instead, he rambled on about how great Ross was, how much he looked forward to working with him in the year ahead, and how, golly, politics certainly wasn’t involved in the decision.

Many observers thought it was a lot of hooey then, and some emails only seem to confirm it. The attack on Ross, who has to his credit declined to engage in battle, was clearly motivated entirely by politics, with the Republicans in charge at the General Assembly making their feelings known (after the fact, and doubtless before), and hard GOP partisans in Congress doing the same.

Said one email to Fennebresque from U.S. Rep. George Holding: “John, this is certainly good news. I know you will find a great replacement.” And this from U.S. Rep Virginia Foxx, a hard-right Republican from Banner Elk: “Support your getting new leadership and hope it will be someone who will ask pertinent questions and help reshape the system.”

But no politics. Nooooo ... would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?

Asked to explain what she meant by “reshape” the UNC system, Foxx offered a confusing non-explanation.

Fennebresque also got some calls from state Sens. Phil Berger, the big leader, and blustery Bob Rucho, one of his top lieutenants. Chances are, they weren’t planning to stand with President Ross, who at one time was an active Democrat.

But no politics. Nooooo ... how about a beachfront lot in the Grand Canyon?

Some months after the disastrous Ross firing, Fennebresque isn’t much better at explaining things. Of the emails, he said, “I didn’t think of the support as being particularly partisan. 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.”

What in the world does that mean? No, on second thought, no more explanations, and especially press conferences.

Other emails were just funny. A conservative businessman worried that Tom Ross had stacked the search committee for a new chancellor at UNC-Wilmington so “there is no chance a conservative makes it to the final cut ...” The only problem is, Ross didn’t pick the search committee; the trustees did.

One critic of the decision doubtless got Fennebresque’s attention. Wilmington pharmaceutical mogul Fred Eshelman, a major UNC donor, criticized the decision in an email to Fennebresque, saying he thought “it’s a real loss, particularly rolled out the way it was.”

Through these last months, Tom Ross has continued to exhibit only grace and class. His stellar performance as UNC system president speaks for itself, and that is how it is going to be until his exit. If the Board of Governors had any savvy and class of its own, it would rescind its monumentally bad decision, apologize to Ross, and insist that he continue as president. Clearly, the board is taking cues from Republican political leaders, and after a choice for the short term (the popular and capable UNC Health President and CEO, Bill Roper, is the likely next president), will go for the long term with a retired general or business figure to the liking of the most conservative Republicans. That will be the main qualification.

Let’s hope they don’t announce it in a press conference.

Jim Jenkins: 919-829-4513 jjenkins@newsobserver.com