John Fennebresque confirmed what many had assumed: The UNC system’s Board of Governors is headed for a drastic change in leadership.
Fennebresque, who is 68 and has been the board’s chairperson since 2014, on Monday announced his immediate resignation from the governing body. The decision comes after the selection of the system’s new president, Margaret Spellings, and 10 months of tension following Fennebresque’s push to oust current UNC-system President Tom Ross in January.
“I am delighted we could bring in a nationally proven and accomplished leader to serve as the next President of this great University system,” Fennebresque said in a press release. “Significant challenges lie ahead for the system as it continues to provide the unparalleled education our students deserve.”
Several board members called last week for Fennebresque’s resignation, citing the lack of transparency in the search for the system’s new president. Accordingly, Fennebresque’s decision to resign was met with little surprise from fellow board members.
“He had let us know, so it wasn’t a surprise for us,” said board member Marty Kotis, who has filed an official complaint against Fennebresque.
Kotis echoed statements made by other board members with post-announcement praise of Fennebresque’s leadership.
“I think in this action, he’s putting the University first, and everyone on the board appreciates that,” Kotis said.
Ross, who has said he will stay on as system president until January, said Fennebresque was a dedicated leader.
“While John Fennebresque and I may have had our differences at times, he truly loves the University of North Carolina and has been a tireless, passionate advocate for it,” he said in a statement.
Fennebresque’s fellow board members were not alone in applauding his decision to leave.
“It clears the air,” said Ferrel Guillory, professor in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism and director of the Program on Public Life. “He was a lightning-rod figure, and with his resignation, the controversy surrounding him will fade.”
Jenna Robinson, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said in an email Fennebresque made the right decision.
“The board has been very divided throughout the presidential search process,” she said. “His leaving will allow the board to come back together and start fresh with new leadership.”
While the board might benefit from a leadership change, Guillory said, the current sense of uncertainty will remain for some time.
“Once a new chair is named, there’s a learning curve for that person to establish a rapport and credibility with the board,” he said.
Even with its lightning rod gone, the board’s leadership remains in flux.
Guillory questioned how well President-elect Margaret Spellings will fit into the picture come January.
“Yes, it was a unanimous vote of approval, but Fennebresque’s resignation will surely have an impact on her ability to lead the board,” he said.
Kotis acknowledged Spellings’ selection was quick, but said the process is separate from the person.
“You won’t find anyone on the board that doesn’t support her leadership,” he said.
Fennebresque’s departure means that after a 30-day period, Vice Chairperson Louis Bissette will become the temporary chair until a permanent replacement can be found.
Fennebresque will return to the Charlotte law firm McGuireWoods.
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