The new president of the UNC System seems determined that the state’s financial crisis — the first thing on most people’s minds with regard to the 17 campuses — will not be the hallmark of his tenure.
Thomas Ross ’75 (JD), elected unanimously by the system Board of Governors on Thursday to succeed Erskine Bowles ’67, said technology will drive many of the profound changes he expects to see in what he hopes will be a minimum five to seven years as president.
Ross cited the growing popularity of e-readers as an example of transformations to come in higher education. Students now are renting some textbooks digitally, and he suggested it won’t be long before all textbooks are acquired this way. “It might not help the backpack industry,” he said.
The 60-year-old Ross — the president of Davidson College, a North Carolina native, former Superior Court judge and former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation — will take office Jan. 1.
He has been involved in public service throughout a career that included a stint as a top aide to an N.C. congressman and as director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. “He’s a person who has very strong convictions but is able to respect the views of others he doesn’t necessarily agree with,” said Tom Lambeth ’57, who preceded Ross at the Reynolds Foundation.
“He’s an extremely able person. I think it’s really a fine choice,” Lambeth said. “He has a good bit of experience working with the General Assembly — he starts out not having to learn who the people are. He has been involved as a grants-maker with a good many of the postsecondary schools in North Carolina.”
President Emeritus William Friday ’48 (LLB) told The News & Observer of Raleigh, “He’s worked in and around all the forces that work for good in North Carolina. I think the University is indeed fortunate. Mr. Ross is a splendid example of a person dedicated to a life of public service.”
Ross taught in UNC’s Institute of Government immediately after his graduation from the law school, before going back to his native Greensboro to practice law. He was an aide to U.S. Rep. Robin Britt ’63 for two years and was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1984 — at age 33, the youngest Superior Court judge in the state. He was on leave from the bench to direct the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts in 2000 when he took over the helm of the Reynolds Foundation.
BOG Chair Hannah Gage ’75 said Ross emerged quickly from a field of 55 to 65 candidates in a national search. She said Ross was strong “in a lot of people’s minds all through the process. It was just clear to us.” One of nine candidates interviewed, he will earn $525,000 per year and have a benefits package similar to Bowles’. Bowles makes $478,000, and the BOG set a range of from $495,000 to $550,000 for the position.
Ross said it was an emotional struggle for him to leave Davidson, his undergraduate alma mater, but that he felt called to this job. “There is no more important institution to North Carolina and her future than The University of North Carolina,” he said.
After his election and introduction he talked about the importance of making higher education available to more of the state’s citizens, either through the universities or in partnership with the community colleges. He said he learned at Davidson the ways “education does release the full potential of individuals.”
“We’ve got to look for ways to work together,” with the community colleges, for instance, “to educate more people and do it in a quality way,” he added.
The end of Bowles’ five years as president has been dominated by wrestling with how to keep the universities’ academic quality at a high level amid deep budget cuts. Ross said that his first order of business at Davidson was to understand the budget; that also will be true in this job, he said, but he added he did not want to get overwhelmed by the financial downturn. He said the difference between running a school of 1,700 students and a system with more than 225,000 in many ways is just a matter of scale.
In 2007, Ross became the 17th president of the elite private liberal arts school founded in 1837. In 2007, he said, Davidson became the first college in the country to eliminate loans as a part of its financial aid package. He acknowledged that debt-free graduation for students who need financial aid would be more of a challenge in a large public system.
The percentage of Davidson’s students studying on some form of aid grew from 33 to 42 during his time there, Ross said. He also said that last year, Davidson had as good a fund-raising year as it has ever had.
He ran the prestigious Reynolds Foundation for seven years.
“He knows the nonprofit community in the state very well,” Lambeth said. “He has a national reputation in philanthropy.” The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is one of the country’s largest family foundations restricted to operating in a single state. Under Ross, its worth grew to more than $500 million.
He has served as chair of the trustees at UNC-Greensboro and has been on the boards of visitors at UNC-G, Wake Forest and Chapel Hill. He also has been chair of the Guilford County Democratic Party.
Ross will be the seventh president to lead the consolidated UNC System — the fifth under its present structure, following Bowles, Molly Corbett Broad (1997-2005), C.D. Spangler ’54 (1986-97) and William C. Friday ’48 (LLB).
Ross and his wife Susan, a 1971 graduate of the School of Education at Carolina, have two grown children, both Davidson alumni, and a grandson.