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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