Emails between Tom Ross, UNC Board of Governors show concern about Ross’ dismissal

By: - May 14, 2015 10:09 am


Several members of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors contacted UNC President Tom Ross in the days after he was pushed to resign, relaying their sorrow about what happened, according to emails recently obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.

“I have enjoyed getting to know you and consider you to be a respected colleague and friend,” Jim Holmes, a board member, wrote Ross the evening after the Jan. 16 board vote to keep Ross on the job until 2016. “I have a heavy heart and look forward to the opportunity to sit down and discuss my thoughts with you.”

Ross also remarked in an email to Ann Goodnight, a UNC Board of Governor member and wife of SAS co-founder Jim Goodnight, that he was worried about what was to come for the UNC system.

“It is a difficult time for me personally, but I am confident I will end up OK,” Ross wrote on Jan. 25. “Frankly, I am concerned about the future of the University.”

The emails (scroll down to read) were included in a batch of 1,007 pages of emails released to N.C. Policy Watch this month as part of a Jan. 20 request for correspondence exchanged between Ross and board members. N.C. Policy Watch has also asked for copies of all correspondence between some board members and members of the legislature or others concerning Ross. That request has not yet been fulfilled by the UNC system.

Most of the emails released by the UNC system consist of routine correspondence about university business between board members and Ross, while a handful reflect on what transpired the week Ross was dismissed from his job.

The reasons behind Ross’ dismissal, however, remain elusive.

No reason other than general desire for a change have been cited for Ross’ dismissal, though speculation has swirled around whether there were political motives at play, given that Ross, a Democrat, was appointed in 2011 by a board that was dominated by Democrats. The UNC Board of Governors now consists entirely of appointees from a state legislature that’s been controlled by Republicans since 2011.

Raiford Trask III, a real estate developer from Wilmington and board member, wrote Ross the weekend following the vote, explaining he was unaware of plans to oust Ross when Trask sent an email two days before the meeting canceling a trip the two considered taking to South America.

“I suspect that this is pretty far down on your list of priorities right now but it is important to me that you know I wasn’t made aware of ‘the situation’ until late in the day on Wednesday, well after I decided I couldn’t go to Chile and sent this email,” Trask wrote Jan. 18 to Ross.

Trask added, “all that I am going to say is that I have never been more impressed with anyone’s strength of character or sense of duty than I was with yours in closed session Friday.”

Ross also sent a Jan. 19 email to Harry Smith, a UNC Board of Governor member from Greenville, thanking Smith for speaking with him after the meeting.

“Thanks again for your call Saturday,” Ross wrote to Smith. “It meant more to me than you will ever know. As they say, you are a good man Harry Smith.”

In a press conference after that meeting, UNC Board of Governors’ Chair John Fennebresque praised Ross at length and struggled to explain to reporters why the board was getting rid of Ross. He denied there was any political pressure to get rid of Ross, claiming that he was not a political person and politics didn’t come into play on the governing board.

(As N.C. Policy Watch reported previously, Fennebresque has donated more than $250,000 since 2007 to primarily Republican political campaigns in the state.)

In one Jan. 17 email exchange that Ross was copied on, an upset Chapel Hill resident chastised Fennebresque for not telling the public why the board was parting ways with Ross, in an email titled “the firing of Tom Ross.”

“Show some courage, sir,” Robert Dalton wrote to Fennebresque. “Tell us the truth.”

Fennebresque responded to the email less than 15 minutes after it was sent, sending a two-sentence response asserting that Ross was not fired.

“He was not fired,” Fennebresque wrote, in an email he copied Ross on. “Tom will continue as President for at least another year with the Board’s support.”

The lack of explanation about Ross’ departure has frustrated faculty, who are seeing a UNC Board of Governors more interested than ever before to interfere in campus-level policies, said Andy Koch, a communications professor at Appalachian State University who recently finished up a term on that campus’ faculty assembly.

Years of budget cuts, including $400 million in cuts the 17-campus university system absorbed in 2011, have stretched professors’ abilities to consistently deliver a quality education to students with larger class sizes and fewer campus resources, Koch said.

Those concerns increased with Ross’ firing, as well as with the February decision to shut down three academic centers. One of those shuttered centers is a Chapel Hill-based poverty center led by law professor Gene Nichol, who has been a vocal critic of policies under the state’s Republican leaders.

“There’s a real concern among faculty members about where the system is headed,” said Koch, who has taught at ASU since 1995. “We’ve never really confronted anything like this before. People are wondering where this goes in the end.”

Koch also cast skepticism on the insistence from Fennebresque and other UNC Board of Governors’ members that politics had nothing to do the decision to part ways with Ross.

“They [UNC Board of Governor members] can say a lot of things, but saying them doesn’t make them true,” Koch said.

Ross, UNC BOG got along

In the emails released by the UNC system, Ross appeared to get along well with many members of the UNC Board of Governors, frequently exchanging pleasantries and friendly banter in the weeks before and after his January firing.

“You are my HERO!,” he wrote to Harry Smith, a board member from Greenville, after Smith explained he would support a funding request from the UNC hospital system.

At other times, the content was more serious, as when several board members wrote in emails to Ross and N.C. Stae University Chancellor Randy Woodson praising the creation of the “Our Three Winners” scholarship to honor three Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill by who police say was an irate neighbor.

“So now we have lost three amazing young people, three priceless seeds for our future,” wrote UNC Board of Governor member Champ Mitchell in a Feb. 20 email. “In return, we get a degenerate moron.”

“It is odd to feel so saddened and so enraged at the same time,” Mitchell concluded. “We have to do better.”

In hindsight, some of the emails exchanged between Ross and board members may have foreshadowed what was to come.

Joan MacNeill, a UNC Board of Governor member from Webster who co-owned the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, complimented the UNC system’s spokeswoman Joni Worthington in a Jan. 6 email for handling a journalist’s question.

Charlie Norton, an assignment desk manager for WNCN, asked if a meeting called in early January to discuss the process of selecting a new UNC system president was a sign Ross was on his way out.

“We just got a notice of a board of governors working group meeting on choosing a president,” Norton wrote. “Before we jump to any off-base conclusions, do you have any more information on this??”

Nothing was amiss, Worthington wrote to the reporter, in an email she forwarded to several board members and Ross.

“In short, the working groups’ focus will [sic] be limited to policy/progress – not choosing a new President,” Worthington wrote to the reporter. “President Ross has no plans to retire anytime soon.”

“Thanks Joni,” MacNeill wrote in an email that included Ross, Worthington, and several other board members, but not the journalist. “Your response was right on target, as always!”

Ten days after MacNeill sent that email, Ross’ departure was announced.

MacNeill is now the head of the search committee tasked with finding his replacement.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].

Want to read the emails for yourself? Click here or read below.

20150514101747.pdf by NC Policy Watch

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.