The choice of Thomas Ross as the new UNC-system president offers a candidate with strong credentials, and reflects a recent preference for administrators from within North Carolina.
This is not to say Ross has no homework to do. His qualifications indicate that he can certainly learn the ropes. But this position is in many ways dramatically different than his current one as the president of Davidson College.
A great first step would be starting as soon as possible to cultivate a relationship with the General Assembly. Not only does Ross come from a college not dependent on state coffers, but he has to fill the shoes of Erskine Bowles, who was well-liked and well-connected with legislators.
Ross should also spare little time in outlining his vision for the UNC system. The system’s budget woes are of course some of the first things to address.
But Ross is also adopting the UNC Tomorrow initiative — Bowles’ brainchild. His plans for fulfilling its mission of forging a closer bond with the state at large will be important moving forward.
The choice of Ross also says much about the process that yielded him.
Clearly, the prevailing philosophy in the UNC system favors looking here at home for administrative picks. Ross follows Chancellor Holden Thorp and Provost Bruce Carney in being a local pick following nationwide searches by the consulting firm R. William Funk and Associates. Carney was actually not even in the original finalist pool.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the sentiment that looking close to home is in the best interest of the system’s values. This is, after all, a university of the people of North Carolina. But it yet again raises concerns about the efficacy of conducting a nationwide search if there’s such a preference for local candidates. And Ross’ own philosophy of finding system leaders will doubtlessly affect the process in the future.
On the whole, Ross seems to be a top-notch pick. He has enjoyed a venerable career in law, with the philanthropic Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and most recently, of course, with Davidson College, where it appears he was wildly popular.