Current Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 02:54:01 -0400
The UNC system’s 17th president says he’s embracing severe budget cuts, resource shortfalls and a troubled economy as a challenge — a challenge he plans to tackle head on.
Thomas Ross, the man who has overseen the 17 UNC-system campuses for the last nine months, was sworn in Thursday.
In front of an audience of students, faculty and legislators at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, Ross vowed to uphold his position and carry on the legacy of his predecessors.
“To be mentioned in the same breath as presidents Bill Friday, Dick Spangler, Molly Broad and Erskine Bowles is emotionally and intellectually overwhelming,” Ross told his audience. “To follow in their crater-sized footprints is daunting and even scary.”
Since Ross was selected last August, the N.C. General Assembly has cut $414 million from the UNC-system budget. The 15.6 percent cut to the system has forced universities to eliminate vital resources, such as counseling services, course offerings and about 3,000 faculty positions.
Many administrators have expressed concern that these cuts will make it difficult to protect the “academic core,” of the university — an initiative that Ross’ predecessor Erskine Bowles made a priority.
Bowles, who led the UNC system from 2006 until 2010, was known for handling one of the worst recessions in decades.
And as the state suffers an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent — the seventh highest in the nation — and administrators struggle to figure out how to fund next year’s potential budget shortfalls, Ross must prepare for similar challenges.
But he says he won’t be doing it alone.
“We are in an economic and social malaise and fear we may never come out of it. We’ve heard the phrase the ‘new normal’ and fear that where we are right now is where we will stay,” Ross said. “Well I don’t buy it. It doesn’t have to be that way. This is our time and what we do with it is up to us.”
While Ross is handling similar challenges as his predecessor, many administrators say his style of leadership is a bit different.
“Erskine Bowles was quick, somewhat impatient. (Ross) seems to be a little bit more deliberative,” said Sanjiv Sarin, dean of the graduate school at N.C. A&T.
Phil Dixon, a member of the UNC-system Board of Governors and Ross’ former classmate, said the new president has different strengths that will allow him to combat economic instability.
“Erskine brought a business perspective to the system,” he said. “He looked at the performance of programs, utilized space, whether we were top heavy in middle management, whether we could cut. He did some nice things for us in taking a different look at it,”
“Tom probably has the added advantage of having been in academia, so he understands both sides.”
In his speech, Ross outlined steps the system should take to maintain accessible and affordable education during tumultuous economic times.
He stressed the importance of leveraging technology to create more online classes and cutting inefficient programs.
“Such efforts will help preserve and expand student opportunities while reducing cost,” he said.
Ross, who is a native of Greensboro, is a graduate of Davidson College and UNC-CH School of Law. Ross was president of Davidson from 2007 until the end of 2010. He also has served as a N.C. Superior Court judge and as a director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the courts.
Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the board, said it was Ross’ well-rounded background that caught the attention of the selection committee who picked him.
“We said when Tom was chosen that there wasn’t one thing — any one experience that made us decide,” she said.
“It was his cumulative experience and the diversity of his professions that showed us that he adapts and is comfortable wearing many hats.”
John Fennebresque, a member of the board who also worked with former system president Dick Spangler, said Ross has handled his first nine months in office well.
“I think that Dick was very good about taking seriously his mandate to spend taxpayers money responsibly. And I think that’s stayed with the culture of the president. Molly did that and I know Tom Ross is,” he said.
“I think Tom is off to a good start in difficult times.”
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