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The Daily Tar Heel

Thomas Ross to lead UNC system

Davidson College president chosen to take over for Erskine Bowles

Ross shakes hands with UNC-system chancellors after being elected.
Ross shakes hands with UNC-system chancellors after being elected.

Correction (August 30, 1:17 a.m.): Due to a reporting error an previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date Thomas Ross took to the podium. The story has been update to reflect the correction. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

When Thomas Ross took the podium Thursday, the leaders of higher education in North Carolina stood up.

They stood to welcome the seventeenth leader of one of the largest university systems in the country. They stood to celebrate his predecessor’s inspiring term. And they stood to recognize his appointment’s significance for the state of North Carolina.

UNC’s Board of Governors voted unanimously to appoint Ross the new president of the UNC system at an emergency meeting.

Ross, currently the president of Davidson College, will become the chief executive officer and director of the 17-campus system. He will inherit a job filled with challenges — from budget cuts to inevitable tuition increases to growing enrollment — and will follow Erskine Bowles, a man widely beloved in the state.

Friends and colleagues describe Ross, a former judge and administrator, in glowing terms, speaking to his intelligence and innovation, deep ties to the state and a demonstrated ability to lead large institutions.

But how he will lead and balance the highly complex interests within the system remains to be seen.

“He enters the job a lot more prepared than I was. I don’t have any concerns or reservations about his selection at all,” Bowles said. “I spent about three hours with him on the phone talking about the job. He’s the right guy for the job — there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Coming to UNC

When Ross takes office Jan. 1, he will lead an institution that has a combined budget of $7.4 billion, employs at least 47,000 people and enrolls more than 220,000 students.

“You think following one the smartest, hardest working, most dedicated people in the country is daunting?” he asked reporters jokingly at the press conference following the meeting.

The system is dealing with a total of $575 million in cuts in the last three years and has already cut 23 percent in expenses and nearly 900 administrative positions. The situation could become even worse at the end of the year when stimulus money runs out.

But Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the board and head of the search committee, said she has full confidence that Ross will meet those challenges and work well with the legislature — an important component of the often-political job.

“Tom Ross knows through experience what it takes to run a university,” she said. “He knows what it takes to deliver a high-quality academic experience. He also understands the challenge of achieving high graduation and retention rates.”

Ross gained experience working within state government as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts and a Superior Court Judge.

“The day he walks in he’ll be respected by the legislature because he knows the people over there,” Gage said. “He’s done this before.”

While Davidson is a much smaller institution than UNC — it enrolls only about 1,700 students — the characteristics colleagues speak of could translate to a larger institution.

“I tell you what. The university system — all of the citizens of North Carolina — will truly be inspired by this man,” said John Holshouser, Superior Court judge and longtime friend of Ross. “He is just one of those people that very few come along.”

Setting the policy

As president of the system, Ross will be expected to take a significant role in shaping tuition policy, negotiating the state’s budget, selecting chancellors and setting the major initiatives for the institution.

But he comes to the job with a seemingly limited number of specific priorities or goals he wants to accomplish, and a more over-arching approach.

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“What I’ve learned about higher education is that excellence is important, and excellence will be a part of the mission of this university,” he said at the press conference.

“That should be our goal in everything we do. I don’t have a specific agenda at this point.”

Davidson is a private college, where tuition, room and board comes in at more than $30,000 a year.

While Bowles always maintained that he was a “low tuition guy,” Ross said he did not have a particular outlook on tuition.

“The only philosophy I have about tuition is that when you get it, you have to use it wisely, because it comes from the pockets of the parents and students,” he said. “At the same time, you’ve got institutions that need to be operated.”

Ross said he is passionate about adapting to technological changes like online textbooks, which he thinks could change how students learn and how the system meets their needs.

On leaving Davidson

Ross served as president at Davidson for only three years, but it is where he earned his undergraduate degree and spent many formative years. He built ties within the community and earned kudos as president for his work with the town.

“We’re having a funeral tomorrow,” said Davidson town manager Leamon Brice, on the depth of the community’s loss. “We all are happy for him and the state of North Carolina, but we’re disappointed to lose him.”

The search process

The search that finally brought Ross to UNC took six months and cost about $100,000 — a process that reflected the difficulties the system faced in replacing Bowles.

“We attracted talent from different backgrounds and across the country,” Gage said. “But in the end, the long and winding road led us back to North Carolina – to one of our own.”

Gage said the committee had about 55 to 65 candidates, and narrowed the list to nine individuals.

“There was no one quality that outshone any of the others. It was the entire package that resonated deeply and led us to our conclusions,” Gage said.

The job will come with a pay raise — Ross will earn $525,000. Bowles earned $478,000. Search firm R. William Funk and Associates recommended the increase to remain competitive.

“We obviously wanted there to be some increase or we’d never get him,” Gage said.

Committee members spoke to Ross’s knowledge of North Carolina that he earned while leading the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation as a major asset he brings to the job.

“It was his roots in the state, his understanding of the state. The fact that he’s spent his life trying to improve other people’s lives. It was an easy, unanimous decision,” Gage said.

She said that in making the decision, the committees had to take on a serious level of foresight and forward thinking.

“We also tried not to look for a president just for this particular crisis. This crisis will end. And we want someone here for the future. We want someone who will take us beyond.”

Senior writers Sara Gregory and Tarini Parti contributed reporting.

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