In With the In-Crowd

As the University of North Carolina system passed the torch of leadership from current president Erskine Bowles to incoming president Thomas W. Ross at a special meeting of the Board of Governors on August 26, it was impossible not to see the many parallels between the two men. Yet no two people are exactly alike, and a closer look reveals important differences as well.

For instance, Ross, the current president of Davidson College, gave one response at a press conference after the meeting that indicated some likely differences in approach and personality. He said that he had no priorities set for what he wanted to accomplish as UNC system president, other than to focus on “excellence.”  In 2006, Bowles came charging into the job with an action plan filled with specific goals, such as improving K-12 education and making the system’s business practices more efficient.

Additionally, unlike Bowles, Ross already has had a taste of what it’s like to run an academic institution in his three years as the president of Davidson, a small (1700 students) and highly rated private North Carolina college near Charlotte. However, even that might not have prepared him for managing such a huge, complex organization as the seventeen-campus University of North Carolina system.

Bowles’ experience on the national stage as President Clinton’s chief of staff might have been better training for managing on such an enormous scale and for a position that is always in the media spotlight.

Another potential difference is Bowles’ long career in the private sector. Because of his venture-capital background, Bowles has often been described as a political “centrist.”

Ross, on the other hand, has spent his entire career practicing law, as a judge, and in the non-profit sector, and there are indications that he leans further to the left politically than his predecessor.

But it is the similarities between them that stand out first and foremost.

Both are Greensboro natives who hold degrees from the system’s flagship university at Chapel Hill.  Both distinguished themselves in a variety of other fields other than education before entering academia. And both are consummate insiders in North Carolina’s heavily Democratic political establishment—they even share a common experience as chiefs of staff for Democratic politicians in the federal government.

And it is likely that Ross will continue many of Bowles’ policies. During his acceptance speech and afterwards, he gave indications that he is in sync with Bowles on several major issues. Specifically, he said that he will continue to explore a partnership with the community college system to handle the state’s expected high enrollment growth, that he considers financial aid a top priority, and that he sees the university actively pursuing an expanding role in the state economy.

After graduating from Davidson College in 1972 and UNC Law School in 1975, Ross taught law at Chapel Hill for a year. He then had a six-year stint with the Greensboro Law firm of Smith, Patterson, Follin, Curtis, James and Harkavy (now Patterson Harkavy LLP), but with an eye to politics: He was the Guilford County Democratic Party chairman from 1981 to1983, before spending a year as the chief of staff for Democratic congressman Robin Britt.

In 1984, Governor Jim Hunt appointed Ross as a Superior Court judge in the state’s 18th judicial district (Greensboro).  During his seventeen years on the bench, Ross won numerous awards and accolades, and served on far too many boards and commissions to list in this article.

His acceptance speech for the highly prestigious Rehnquist Award, which he won in 2000 for his work as chair of the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, offers some possible insight into one direction his term in office might take. In the speech, he made remarks indicating his agreement with the belief that today “justice is only available to whites and the wealthy.”

He added that “[i]t is time we look more carefully at police arrest practices and prosecutorial charging decisions to see if there is a disparity in treatment based on race, gender, religion or economic status.”

Given Ross’s decision to emphasize such controversial positions on such a major national stage, it is hard to imagine him taking strong stands against the university system’s many pressure groups that promote multiculturalism and a negative view of America.

It is also noteworthy that during his time on the bench he served on quite a few governing bodies within the UNC system. He served on boards for UNC-Greensboro and UNC Chapel Hill, as well as the Chapel Hill law school alumni association, and was a member of the UNC Tomorrow Commission. Obviously, this background suggests he is quite comfortable with the system’s governing status quo.

A telling—and prophetic—anecdote from an article posted on the Davidson College website recalls how Ross “jokingly told a reporter early in his career that only two jobs could attract him to leave the bench—commissioner of Major League Baseball or executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.”

Such fondness for the left-wing Reynolds Foundation would again suggest that Ross will be agreeable to the university system’s more radical elements. During his six-year tenure from 2001 to 2007 as Reynolds’ executive director, the foundation financially supported such left-wing groups as ACORN, NARAL (a pro-abortion group), the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and many more hard-left organizations. In this time period, the foundation created “Blueprint NC,” which fosters cooperation between more than 50 left-wing organizations in the state. According to the political watchdog group Capital Monitor while Ross was in charge, the foundation started funding the American Civil Liberties Union “to train attorneys to provide Muslims with legal representation,” and “turned much of its focus toward global warming.”

In 2007, Ross took over the reins of Davidson. Just before he became president, the school committed itself to becoming the first liberal arts college in the country to eliminate loans in its financial aid package, a policy he implemented. While Ross was in office, the school continued its long-term rise in national reputation. This year, U.S. News and World Report ranked Davidson ninth in its list of top liberal arts colleges.

One situation at Davidson that might reveal some of Ross’s tendencies as a leader is the school’s speech code. Before Ross arrived, the free speech watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) declared Davidson’s code to have a “chilling effect” on students right to express themselves freely. The code prohibits “comments or inquiries about dating,” “jokes,” “teasing, dismissive comments,” and “making [offensive] facial expressions.”

According to FIRE staff members, FIRE contacted Ross’s predecessor about the speech code, recommending that it be made less restrictive. While FIRE never contacted Ross directly, the organization has frequently publicized the policy as one of the most restrictive in the country. Yet despite FIRE’s pressure, the speech code remains intact after Ross’s three years in charge. 

At the same time, Davidson’s reputation for quality education and Ross’s stated commitment to “excellence” during the press conference could mean a sorely-needed focus on high standards in the state’s public universities.

Ross’ lifelong involvement with North Carolina—praised as a great strength—could turn out to be a weakness, as it sometimes was for Bowles. In one example of how Bowles was hampered by his ties to the Democratic machine, he got dragged into the Mary Easley affair, in which the former governor’s wife’s employment at N.C. State brought down that university’s administration.

At the press conference, Ross cited as a plus his experience walking the halls of the state assembly looking to affect legislation—but such familiarity with the system could quickly become a minus as well.

The transition from Molly Corbett Broad—a career academic administrator with no North Carolina ties—to Bowles, a businessman and politician with deep roots in the state, signaled a dramatic change in leadership. Ross’s ascendance to the top slot gives a very different message: that the UNC system will remain firmly in the grip of the state’s political establishment for a few more years at least. Such continuity is not always for the best; sometimes a succession of like-minded individuals in the top slot means many problems don’t get addressed, and alternative solutions get ignored.

Yet, Ross’s presidency is still an open book—he doesn’t officially begin until January 1, 2011. Exactly what kind of stamp he will place on one of the nation’s largest university systems will not be known until he has been through a few crises and a couple of budget sessions.