Thomas Ross named UNC-system president

Thomas Ross is currently the president of Davidson College.

Thomas Ross, president of Davidson College, will be the new UNC-system president following an emergency meeting this morning.

Ross will replace outgoing President Erskine Bowles after the Board of Governors approved him today. Bowles announced his retirement Feb. 12 after four years of serving in the position.

Bowles was widely popular among legislators and administrators and was considered a difficult man to replace.

Thomas Ross


  • Graduated from Grimsley High School in 1968
  • BA in political science from Davidson in 1972
  • J.D. with honors from UNC in 1975


  • Executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Inc., 2001–2007
  • Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, 1999–2000
  • North Carolina Superior Court Judge, 18th Judicial District, 1984–2000
  • Chief of staff to Congressman Robin Britt (D-NC), 1983–1984

President’s duties:

  • In charge of the 16 universities in the state and the N.C. School of Science and Math. He is the chief administrative and executive officer of an organization that enrolls more than 220,000 students. The campuses and their affiliates have budgets totaling $7.4 billion and collectively employ more than 47,000 faculty and staff.
  • Has complete authority to manage the affairs and policies of the universities, with the direction of the Board of Governors. He is in charge of all policies, recommendations, and requests to the NC General Assembly and the Governor. He is charged with nominating chancellors for each of the UNC system’s campuses and recommending tuition increases to the board based on campus proposals.

While Ross comes from a much smaller institution and lacks recent legislative experience or national prestige, friends and colleagues said he is a dynamic individual, a passionate North Carolinian and a good pick for the job.

As chief executive officer and spokesperson for the 17-campus system, Ross will face serious budget woes at an institution that has already made significant cuts. As president, he will work with the board, legislators and the governor to shape the future and direction of the educational system.

Robert Dunham, a Davidson trustee who has known Ross personally for years, said Ross’s work will prepare him well to serve as president.

“Who are the people who could do this job? Somebody who can win the respect of people across those divides and do what needs to be done to shore up a university system in this financial crunch. I think he’s the perfect fit.”

Ross’s ties

While Ross comes to the UNC system from a small, private institution, he has ties to the system and the state as a whole.

He has only been president of Davidson since August 2007. He earned his law degree with honors from UNC in 1975 and was named the youngest N.C. Superior Court Judge in 1984.

“The university is indeed very fortunate to have a man of his background and experience and his academic work,” Friday said.

“We are fortunate he’ll be coming to us in the service of the presidency. He is an able, remarkable, conscientious public servant.”

Ross also served as director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts — a job tied to the legislature — and executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which distributes funding and grants across the state.

“His work at the foundation would have given him a broad knowledge of the assets, people and concerns of the state,” said Leslie Winner, current executive director of the foundation and former vice president and general counsel to UNC.

Former Davidson Mayor Randy Kincaid had nothing but praise.

“I just think the world of the guy,” he said. “He’s smart. He’s energetic. He’s scrupulously honest and a straight-shooter.”

The search

The search to replace Bowles began in earnest in March, when three search committees formed with the purposes of writing a leadership statement, selecting a search consultant and vetting candidates in the final stages.

The committees hired R. William Funk and Associates, a Dallas consulting firm that conducts high-level administrative searches at universities across the country.

Funk recommended the board pass a pay increase for the new president to remain competitive in the search, and they approved a salary range of $495,000 to $550,000.

Early in the process, leaders said no individuals were presumed candidates for the job, and they would cast a wide net nationwide to find the right person.

But Ross is a white male from North Carolina with a background in law — qualities common among high-level administrators.

In March, search leaders set a preliminary budget for the process at $100,000, but that figure was expected to change. The search to hire UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp two years ago cost $210,000.

Looking forward

When Ross takes office, he will oversee a vast and complex system that has seen $575 million in cuts in the last three years and has already cut 23 percent in expenses and nearly 900 administrative positions.

“We’re looking at another two or three legislative sessions that are going to be very, very challenging,” said Hannah Gage, head of the search committee, in May.

“I don’t think that we’re out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.”

Ross will serve as the public face and leader of the system, which Friday described as a unique role.

“The most important advice I could give him is to enjoy it,” Friday said. “Because it’s the position most responsible for public life in North Carolina. You can be a part of an enormous process that brings happiness to tens of thousands of people. It’s the most amazing thing you can do in your lifetime.”

Senior writers Sara Gregory and Tarini Parti contributed reporting.

Contact the State & National Editor at

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