It has been four days since the UNC Board of Governors dealt the university system a stunning blow by abruptly firing UNC President Tom Ross Friday morning and there’s still been no reason given for the decision that will force the widely respected Ross to leave his post in January of 2016.
Most observers speculate that it was simply a matter of politics, a nearly all Republican board firing a president with ties to the Democratic establishment of the state who was hired before Republicans took over the General Assembly four years ago and have since elected all 32-members of the Board of Governors.
But Board Chair John Fennebresque insisted at an awkward news conference Friday that the decision was not political at all, and he repeatedly praised Ross’ performance and said he was a great leader with a fantastic work ethic and perfect integrity— not exactly fireable offenses.
Former board members who have been interviewed seem disappointed by the decision, including pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman, a prominent donor to UNC-Chapel Hill and to Republican political campaigns who was elected to the board by the current General Assembly before stepping down before his term expired.
Eshelman told the News & Observer that he was “blindsided” by the decision to fire Ross and that it is a big loss for UNC, a sentiment shared by other ex-board members who have commented.
Current members of the board have said little, though some have responded to emailed questions saying they voted to approve Ross’ severance agreement even though they fully supported Ross as president. Fennebresque seemed to support Ross too, providing not a shred of justification for the dismissal or why it was made now.
The current board has been in place for nearly a year and Fennebresque said there was no precipitating event that forced Friday’s decision. It’s not even clear who was the driving force on the board to remove Ross or if the call came from legislative leaders, who hand selected the board members themselves.
The decision also prompted questions for former State Budget Director and prominent Republican political financier Art Pope. Pope has been widely rumored to be interested in the UNC job and recently stepped down as president of his family foundation, fueling the speculation further.
Pope emailed one reporter saying that he was not seeking the UNC presidency but the rumor persists.
Right-wing pundits have accused people who were understandably confused by the decision to fire Ross and asking about Pope replacing him of being conspiracy theorists —which is the height of irony considering the circumstances.
A politically appointed board unexpectedly fires a popular and respected president with no notice or no explanation and nobody even owns up to pushing for him to resign.
The head of the board then insists that it wasn’t politics that prompted the president’s dismissal, and says his age wasn’t a factor either, and then proceeds to talk about the incredible job the president is doing.
There is a conspiracy here all right, a carefully orchestrated plan by right-wing political interests to complete their takeover of the state by firing the head of the university system, a public institution that they have been seeking to dismantle for years.
It’s not clear what happens next, though a search committee will be formed. Fennebresque was vague Friday about what the board would be looking for in a new leader, saying, “we’ve got to get together and articulate the characteristics and traits of a new president.”
Here’s a suggestion. How about a “great leader with a fantastic work ethic and perfect integrity?”
He will be easy to find. He’s just down the hall.