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Chris Fitzsimon: Stop the circus around choosing a UNC leader

Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon is founder and director of NC Policy Watch, a progressive public policy think tank that is a special project of the N.C. Justice Center.

Chris Fitzsimon is founder and director of NC Policy Watch, a progressive public policy think tank that is a special project of the N.C. Justice Center.

It has been nine months since the UNC Board of Governors unexpectedly and clumsily fired President Tom Ross with little notice and no justification.

At a bizarre news conference after the meeting, Board Chair John Fennebresque told reporters that Ross had been doing a wonderful job. Fennebresque denied that the decision had anything to do with politics, a statement nobody in the room believed.

Ross had been hired by a board elected by a Democratic General Assembly and there were reports that leaders of the now-Republican legislative majority had been demanding a change in the leadership of the university, an institution they had long viewed as an outpost for liberal ideas.

The budgets passed by Republicans slashed funding for the university system. Not long after he was elected, Gov. Pat McCrory questioned the need for a liberal arts education on a national radio show.

The new Board of Governors voted to close a poverty center at UNC-Chapel Hill headed by a frequent critic of the General Assembly.

The battle lines were clearly being drawn and Ross, though widely respected across the country for his leadership and integrity, was a casualty of the ideological crusade against UNC and government in general by the new Republican regime.

But even supporters of the move were uncomfortable with the way it was handled. Part of that is a tribute to Ross and his credibility. When the dust settled, with Ross agreeing to stay on for up to a year while his replacement was hired, the board turned to the process to select his successor.

Things became even more ridiculous, with board members complaining that they were being left out of the process. Legislative leaders complained about the search and passed a bill to require the search committee to bring three potential candidates to the board, not just one.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger wrote the board saying that an emergency meeting held Friday to interview former U.S Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for the job violated the spirit of the law.

That bill is still on McCrory’s desk, awaiting his signature, though he said recently that he does not support it. It’s not clear if he will veto the bill or let it become law without his signature Oct. 30, the day of the next board meeting.

Several board members have publicly called for Fennebresque to resign as chair, and a conservative website is touting Spellings’ criticism 10 years ago of a kids show on PBS that included a same-sex couple as a reason that she might be a good fit for the job.

You almost can’t make it up.

Other board members are still complaining about the way Ross was fired, even though only one spoke against the process at the time.

Legislative leaders are also still complaining even though they hand-picked every single member of the board that is now floundering while picking the next leader of one of the best public university systems in the country.

Meanwhile, the man most qualified to run the university system sits in the president’s office and continues to do his job as the circus underway to replace him continues.

The only thing that would make sense now is to stop the insanity and rethink the wrong-headed decision made last January that started this embarrassing process.

But that would take some courage and common sense — and neither is much in evidence among the folks calling the shots in Raleigh and Chapel Hill these days.

Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of NC Policy Watch.


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