Tom Ross doesn’t want to leave. At least not yet.
He’s passionate about the UNC system and his role as its president, leader and champion — a position he’s held for the past four years through a tumultuous financial period for the state’s public universities.
“I would love to be here forever,” he said.
But the system’s Board of Governors announced Friday — after a two-hour closed session meeting — that Ross will be resigning. He'll remain in office until at least Jan. 3, 2016.
Though the system’s presidents have historically retired at age 65, and Ross will turn 65 this year, Ross said during a press conference Friday that he had not planned on retiring and that the board had a “different timeline” for his resignation than he did.
“When I came here, I made it clear that I wouldn’t be ready to stop working at age 65, and I’m not ready to stop working at age 65,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on leaving in the near future.”
He said conversations about him stepping down began several days ago, when board Chairman John Fennebresque approached him.
Fennebresque added that age was not a factor in the decision, and he said that the board believes Ross has done a wonderful job as president.
“President Ross has our complete confidence in managing an incredibly complicated system and an area — education — that is changing every day,” Fennebresque said.
But when asked to explain the reasoning behind pushing Ross out earlier than he had wanted, Fennebresque was noncommittal. He said there was no precipitating event that had motivated the decision.
“The board felt like at the appropriate time, there should be a transition to a new president and we had a timeline that we were thinking along and President Ross had a different timeline and that’s it,” he said. “(We’ve been) trying to figure out the time for this board to work with a new leader a year from now that may bring other assets to the job.”
Which assets specifically, Fennebresque said, would be determined later by the search committee tasked with finding Ross’s successor.
Asked whether politics or UNC-CH’s athletic-academic scandal played any role in Ross’s resignation, Fennebresque repeatedly answered, “No.”
Ross said in his discussions with the board, it appeared that members wanted to see a transition.
“No one expressed dissatisfaction,” he said.
The UNC system has been in its own period of transition since Ross took the reins in 2011. As a conservative revolution swept over North Carolina’s state government, public universities lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state support and were forced to cut positions, degree programs and course sections. The shift came as politicians thrust new scrutiny on the system and demanded it to operate more efficiently.
“There has been a dramatic change in the board of leadership, there has been a dramatic change in the state’s leadership and policymakers. There’s been about as bad an economy as we’ve had,” Ross said.
The institutional obstacles Ross faced on top of budget cuts included significant tuition hikes for both in-state and out-of-state students and the possible closing of Elizabeth City State University in 2014.
It was Ross's advocacy, in part, that took ECSU off the chopping block. He said Friday that though the school is still facing low enrollment and financial challenges, he believes that ECSU is on the rise under its new chancellor, Stacey Franklin Jones, and that the board will continue to support the school.
"For that part of the state, it is a very, very important institution, and we need to remember that," he said.
Ross also oversaw the initial implementation of the system’s five-year strategic plan, a series of improvements and goals designed to increase the state’s college degree attainment level and maximize efficiencies in the face of tight financial times. The plan has been limited in its scope so far due to a lack of funding from the state.
Gov. Pat McCrory released a statement thanking Ross for improving cooperation between the state's K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. McCrory also attended part of Friday's meeting to introduce an initiative that seeks to better commercialize the innovations from universities' research and spur job growth as a result.
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement that Ross has done a skillful job leading the UNC system through difficult times.
"I’m deeply concerned that the forcing out of President Ross is another blow to higher education in North Carolina at a time when we need universities to lead in innovation and critical thinking," he said.
Prior to joining the UNC system, Ross was president of Davidson College, a small private college outside Charlotte.
For now, he's trying to look forward to the next 12 months of his presidency. He said he respects that the board is doing what they think is right for the system.
“I’ve tried to give it all I can during my time so far, and I intend to continue to give it everything I can until my services are no longer required.”
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