Thomas W. Ross became President of the 17-campus University of North Carolina on January 1, 2011. Born and raised in Greensboro, N.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson College (1972) and graduated with honors from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law (1975).
After a short stint as an Assistant Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, Ross joined the Greensboro law firm of Smith Patterson Follin Curtis James & Harkavy in 1976. He left the firm in 1982 to serve as chief of staff in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Congressman Robin Britt. The following year, at the age of 33, Ross was appointed to fill a vacancy on the North Carolina Superior Court. He held the position for the next 17 years.
From his vantage point on the bench, Ross witnessed first-hand a state justice system beleaguered by uneven sentencing and a fast-growing prison population. In 1990, North Carolina’s Chief Justice tapped him to lead a new Sentencing and Policy Advisory Committee. Over the next two years, this panel of judges, lawyers, legislators, law enforcement officers, and citizens devised a structured sentencing system that would toughen sentences for violent crimes and repeat offenses, while increasing community-based alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenses. Adopted by the NC General Assembly in 1993, the new system has become a model for similar programs nationwide.
In 1999, Ross was appointed director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. Over the next two years, he led efforts to improve the management of the court system and advocated for additional resources. In 2001, he left the bench to serve as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a Winston-Salem-based philanthropic organization devoted to improving the lives of the people of North Carolina. During his seven-year tenure at Z. Smith Reynolds, (2001-2007), the foundation awarded about $20 million annually to non-profit groups focused on community economic development, democracy and civic engagement, the environment, pre-college education, and social justice. Ross stepped down in 2007 to return to Davidson as its President, serving in that role until he assumed leadership of UNC.
Active in civic and community activities, Ross currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, the Executive Committee of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Association of Governing Boards’ Council of Presidents and Intercollegiate Athletics Project Advisory Group, the Council on Competitiveness, advisory boards for the NC Humanities Council and the NC State University Institute for Emerging Issues, and the honorary Board of Directors of the Conservation Trust of North Carolina. He also serves on the boards of the National Humanities Center, the David H. Murdock Research Institute, the NC Biotechnology Center, and the UNC Health Care System. A former chairman of the UNC Greensboro Board of Trustees, he has previously served on the Boards of Visitors for UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University. In addition, he has served on the boards of Davidson College, the North Carolina New Schools Project, the Kenan Institute for the Arts, the Institute of Government Foundation, the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law Alumni Foundation, the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.
Ross has received numerous awards and accolades for his vast public service and professional achievements. His many contributions to the judicial system have been recognized through the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence (2000), given annually to one state judge in the nation; Governing Magazine’s National Public Official of the Year Award (1994); the Foundation for the Improvement of Justice Award (1995); the NC Academy of Trial Lawyers Trial Judge of the Year Award (1996); the American Society of Criminology President’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Justice (2007); the NC Justice Center Defenders of Justice Award (2008); and the NC Bar Association Citizen Lawyer Award (2010). He has been honored with Distinguished Alumni Awards from Davidson (2001) and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law (2005), the UNC-Chapel Hill Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award (2015), the Echo Foundation’s Award Against Indifference (2015), and an honorary doctorate from UNCG. In addition, he has received the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award (1993), the National Boy Scouts of America Distinguished Eagle Scout Award (1999), and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine (1999).
Ross has been married since 1972 to Susan Donaldson Ross, a graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education and a former executive director of the Greensboro Bar Association. They have two adult children.