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Tom Campbell: UNC president deserved better from Board of Governors

Steve Logan, former East Carolina University head football coach, recently remarked that things don’t usually turn out well for head coaches. The same is often true for anyone who serves “at the pleasure” of someone or some group. UNC President Tom Ross is the latest example.

The UNC Board of Governors fired him. Despite denials to the contrary, of course it was political, a continuation of the “spoils system,” where family, friends and supporters get the “spoils,” attractive government jobs or appointments when their candidate wins. The 32 members of the Board of Governors are political appointments of the NC House and Senate. When Democrats controlled the legislature their appointees hired Ross. Now Republicans are in charge and make the appointments. While the timing was a surprise, apparently to some board members, Ross and most everyone, the action had been predicted.

We believe chairman John Fennebresque when he says Ross wasn’t fired because of his age, his performance or even because of disagreements with the board. He just wasn’t this board’s selection and since the President serves “at the pleasure” of the Board of Governors, they had every right to fire him. But did they need to do so in such an amateurish fashion?

Tom Ross demonstrated a steady hand in a time that did not lend itself to flashy, bold new initiatives. History will record that he was a good caretaker. He served with grace, was a good leader and deserved better treatment than he was given. But Ross is too classy to complain or air dirty laundry.

Many of us nostalgically remember when Bill Friday was President and want to return to those heady days when skies were blue (not just Carolina blue), winds were steady and the sailing was straight ahead. They forget Friday’s struggles with Governor Bob Scott over formation of the system, with a legislature that passed a speaker ban law restricting communists from speaking on campus, with an upstart East Carolina wanting and winning a medical school in Greenville and with his having to deal with integration, court decisions and sports scandals. Today’s UNC President must serve the obvious Board of Governors, but also legislators, academia, parents, donors and the taxpayers. It’s a difficult job.

Who will become the new President? Many speculate it could be Art Pope, former legislator, major political contributor and benefactor to state-supported universities. We believe Pope is too smart and hope the Board of Governors is too wise to make that choice. Talk about political; everything from his installation forward would be about Pope, not education.

But make no mistake. Those who previously complained that the Board of Governors didn’t exercise enough authority are now silenced. Whatever happens to our university system – good or bad – from this point forward, this Board of Governors owns it. We hope they handle the hiring better than they did the firing, but the new President will know for certain he or she serves at the pleasure of the board. And the pendulum of that “pleasure” is subject to change.

 

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