President Ross, it’s not too late for a legacy

Tom Ross is on the way out as president of the University of North Carolina—although he will remain in his position until January 2016. While Ross’s departure was inevitable, it is puzzling that John Fennebresque, who serves as chairman of the system’s Board of Governors, extended Ross’s tenure for another year. Elected in the summer of 2010 by a passive, mostly Democratic board, Ross now works for a board that is mostly Republican and at least somewhat reform-minded.  

Looking back at Ross’s first four years at the helm, we see leadership marked by tentativeness and preservation of the status quo. But as Ross begins his fifth and final year as president, there are opportunities for him to champion meaningful changes and to leave a positive legacy.

Ross is a quiet, behind-the-scenes worker, not flashy or charismatic. He is an administrator, not a visionary, and he’s in charge of a $9 billion-dollar enterprise. Although he had a role in crafting the system’s five-year strategic plan (published in 2013), for the most part his tenure has been a holding action. He came in during the year when the university’s budget was cut by $400 million, and while funding has recovered since then, the traditional growth—in revenues and in numbers of students—has not returned and is not expected to do so.

Furthermore, the bloom is off the rose of higher education. Continuing increases in tuition are leading students to consider less expensive colleges. While the UNC system’s relatively low tuition may have given it a temporary boost, enrollment throughout the system is flat nonetheless. Other factors will affect the university’s future: the cohort of 18-year-olds is on the decline; competition is coming from online education and certification programs; and parents are beginning to think that community college or traditional trades might not be such a bad way to go, especially as the nation continues to experience falling  employment and stagnant wages.

Unfortunately, it appears that Ross is trying to be a conventional manager rather than implement serious reforms. Admittedly, he has had to select eight chancellors during his tenure, a daunting task; he has kept campus state audits “clean”; and he has held the line on tuition for one year. But serving students and the citizens of North Carolina requires bolder action.

We worry that his focus has been to protect schools more than to help students. For example, his predecessor, Erskine Bowles, set up a plan for minimum admission standards for the system—requiring applicants to have at least an 800 SAT score—to make sure that unqualified students don’t enter school and fail to graduate. Yet a new pilot program, which Ross supports, would allow three schools experiencing enrollment declines to back off from the standard. The schools would rely more on the high school grade-point average—just as the State Board of Education has eased grading standards, a move that could lead to the admission of students ill-prepared for college-level work 

Ross continues to express confidence that Elizabeth City State University, which has seen enrollment plummet, can continue in its current structure. While Ross helped school administrators reduce expenses, any suggestion of significant restructuringsuch as making the school a branch of East Carolina University or merging it with a community college, has been ignored.

And, in spite of the all-too-familiar history of changes in chancellors (eight vacancies in four years suggests that the job is a difficult one) he opposed having a Board of Governors member serve as a non-voting “liaison” on a campus’s search committee. Yet that could enhance oversight of the search process, increase transparency, and produce better candidates.

While Ross was not involved in UNC-Chapel Hill’s “no-show classes” scandal, he must take responsibility for bringing in as chancellor a provost from a small Ivy League college who was unaccustomed to big-time athletics and who probably thought the problems were over when she arrived. In some respects they had only begun, and while Chancellor Carol Folt has begun to take control of the issue, there were some missteps early on. 

Despite the shortcomings of Ross’s presidency, the new year brings opportunities to improve the UNC system. Ross’s fundamental abilities (shown by his previous management and negotiating experience) should be applied to turning the great ship of the University of North Carolina around.  

Over the next year he could do the following:

1. Encourage transparency—at the very least, for the UNC Board of Governors. Instead of burying the board in paperwork that promotes the General Administration’s and universities’ sometimes narrow agendas, he should listen to board members’ concerns and respond with relevant information in a timely, thorough manner.

2. Encourage transparency—for the student and public. The Pope Center has long proposed that syllabi of all courses be posted online, as is done by Fayetteville State University. Such publication is good for students, for the public, and for administrators, who should know what their faculty are teaching. Ross should also add more information to the UNC system’s website, such as each university’s student body profile (e.g, how many students are enrolled in remedial courses?) and the amount of money spent on professors versus administrators. Since the General Administration already collects that information, making it easily available should be a no-brainer.

3. Work with the Board of Governors to change the method of state funding. The current funding formula encourages enrollment increases—increases that are often achieved by admitting academically weak students. Instead, the formula should be based on metrics that reward the school for solid achievements, from stronger learning outcomes (see suggestion 5 below) to efficient finances and space utilization. Ross’s administration has proposed such changes; it should push them forward.

4. Improve the quality of UNC’s education schools. The report of the National Council on Teacher Quality as well as UNC’s own studies show that UNC education schools are not producing teachers adequate to their task. The problems have been known throughout Ross’s tenure, but so far no change has occurred. At the very least, the schools should set higher standards for admission.

5. Have an annual system-wide student learning assessment in place before leaving in 2016. While employers and taxpayers want to know what students have learned, the university system has back-slid on requiring assessments of student learning.

6. Perhaps nothing would enhance Ross’s reputation more over the long run than taking a truly innovative approach to declining enrollment. For example, he could set up a commission to look at restructuring some schools and combining the functions of others. This is far from impossible; the university system in Georgia has created five new schools through mergers and is working on one more.

Tom Ross will have a strong legacy if he embraces reforms and works cooperatively with the Board of Governors and the legislature to meet the needs of students and citizens. We hope to see him make his last year a positive one.