In the summer of 2010, Tom Ross was in his dream job serving as president of his alma mater, Davidson College. He was leading one of the finest private liberal arts colleges in America, one with a large financial endowment relative to its size.
Life was good.
Others might have balked when the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors began recruiting him to succeed Erskine Bowles as UNC president. The task the new president would face was certainly challenging: guiding 17 diverse campuses through the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression, all while facing dozens of issues that colleges and universities across the country were trying to address.
Ross chose to rise to the challenge.
As he noted in his inaugural address, the question he was asked more than any other after taking this job was, ‘What on Earth were you thinking?’”
But anyone who knows Ross understands his passion for and commitment to public service, especially when it’s the people of North Carolina who are being served. It’s a passion he displayed as a faculty member, superior court judge, and leader in the world of nonprofits, and it’s a passion he has maintained in the world of academia.
“Changing jobs was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ross said. “I love Davidson with a passion, and it changed my life. But I also love the University of North Carolina, and I heard from a lot of people who made a difference in my life who urged me to do this, and it was across the political spectrum, from Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican, to Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, to a lot of other people for whom I have great respect. They urged me to do this. It was not a job I applied for or sought, because I loved what I was doing. What tipped the balance for me was my commitment to public service and my commitment to North Carolina.”
Five years later, as he prepares to step down as UNC president, it’s a choice he would make again, even knowing it would require weathering all sorts of storms and managing through multiple crises.
“Do I regret making that decision? The answer is no,” he said. “Even after all that’s happened, I still believe I did what I was supposed to be doing with my life.”
Responding to the Budget Crisis
When Ross arrived in January of 2011, the UNC system faced serious financial issues after the state was forced to reduce spending because of the sluggish economy.
While dealing with the associated series of budget cuts was daunting in terms of sustaining academic quality across the 17 campuses, Ross saw the opportunity to make the University leaner and greener.
“We had received cuts pretty much every year, but I’m proud of the way we responded to those,” Ross said. “We’ve been able to absorb those cuts. It’s been difficult, we’ve lost personnel, we’ve had to trim programs and take a number of other steps, but we are still a very, very strong public university. In fact, we produce 18 percent more degrees than we did five years ago, and we do that at much lower cost per degree — about 15 percent less. So we’ve become more efficient, and I believe those degrees are just as high-quality as they’ve ever been. That’s an accomplishment that I’m proud of.”
Ross credited a team approach to meeting the University’s most pressing financial needs.
“It’s not so much what I did as what we all did together,” he said. “Our chancellors had to make some really hard decisions, and we had to make some hard decisions within General Administration. Some were hard decisions about personnel. Some were realizing that we couldn’t offer as many courses, that faculty had to take a greater number of students in classes, or teach more classes.”
Ross noted that expanding shared services among the campuses has enabled the University to continue to provide what is necessary for students, faculty and staff, but for less money.
“Sharing certain services doesn’t reduce the quality of service, but it does reduce the cost, and that’s really what you are trying to achieve – preserving quality while reducing costs. We’ve worked hard to keep any impact on the classroom at a minimum.”
Indeed, Ross considers that to be among his most important accomplishments as president, and many within the University system agree.
NC A&T State University Chancellor Harold Martin was in his current role when Ross arrived as UNC President. He said there was a lot of uncertainty at that time as to how the new president could lead the system through the severe budget shortages it was facing.
“First and foremost, Tom Ross came into the system at a time when there was beginning to be a shift in substantial funding, from appropriations, by the legislature,” Martin said. “So, I think one of key areas where Tom played a very significant role was in helping to shape a strategic plan for the UNC system with the Board of Governors, in partnership with them, to help look out over the horizon and find what was the roadmap for the future, things that were important for the University of North Carolina as aligned with the growing needs of North Carolinians.”
Martin also said Ross has worked with the Board to limit the negative impact of budget cuts each campus has endured. Ross was able to find ways to achieve the Board of Governors’ goals for increased efficiency and accountability, while giving the chancellors the flexibility necessary to run their campuses.
“We have always respected him for that high level of support on our behalf,” Martin said.
UNC Faculty Assembly Chair Steve Leonard, a professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Ross sought faculty input when he was helping to frame UNC’s five-year strategic plan.
“He encouraged the faculty to put together or author its own account of what the future directions of the University should be, and he made sure that account was considered in the deliberations for the strategic directions plan,” Leonard said.
UNC Chief of Staff Kevin FitzGerald said the strategic directions plan likely would be the part of Ross’ legacy that would have the most significant lasting impact.
“It was a broad effort that involved our board, the business community, and our campuses and has really been a good roadmap and, in fact, it’s guided what we’ve done,” he said.
The plan, “Our Time, Our Future: the UNC Compact with North Carolina,” describes five core goals focused on helping North Carolina meet degree attainment goals that are responsive to state needs, strengthening academic quality, serving the people of North Carolina, maximizing efficiencies, and ensuring an assessable and financially stable University.
Despite constrained resources, the University has made considerable headway in implementing key elements of the plan. In particular, the University has increased the quantity, quality and accessibility of online offerings; expanded outreach and services to military-affiliated students; partnered with the NC Community College System to create a more seamless transfer process and implement a reverse-transfer program; and worked to improve student graduation and retention rates and time to degree. Aided by a targeted appropriation from the NC legislature, teams of faculty also are pursuing potentially game-changing research in areas of strategic priority to the state.
Ross also has built on past initiatives to make the University greener, with the dual benefits of reducing energy costs and being better for the environment.
“We’re saving large amounts of money by being smarter about our energy usage,” Ross said. “The UNC system is doing a great job with conserving energy. We’ve also cut the amount of water we’ve used significantly, and that has resulted in real dollar savings. Those savings have helped offset some of the budget cuts, which is important.”
Leadership Through Strong Leaders
On his nomination, the Board of Governors has elected 11 new chancellors during Ross’ five-year tenure.
“I’m very proud of the team of chancellors that we have in place now,” Ross said. “Eleven out of 17 is a significant number, so I’m very proud of the individuals I helped select and recommended to the Board of Governors. They’re doing great work. And it is, after all, the leadership on the campus that really matters in the University. It’s the chancellors who are managing their campuses and making sure that the students are served well and are receiving great teaching from faculty. We also are blessed with seasoned chancellors who were already in place when I arrived. As a result, I think we have the strongest set of chancellors you can ever hope to have.”
Chancellor Elwood P. Robinson of Winston-Salem State University, who took office in January 2015, said Ross one of the key reasons he took the position.
“I’ve known him for so many years in Winston-Salem,” Robinson said. “I knew of his commitment to education, I knew of his commitment to diversity. He’s such a supporter of the system and its totality. He has a really deep appreciation for every single university within the system, and that was important to me to know we had a president who embraced the diversity, the individuality of the schools. So that was a big part of my coming to Winston-Salem State University.”
Making Campuses Safer
One of Ross’ early initiatives as UNC President was assembling a University-wide task force to consider ways to make the individual campuses safer places.
“It was a top-to-bottom review of all campuses that resulted in about 35 substantive recommendations,” said Brent Herron, associate vice president of campus safety and emergency operations at General Administration. Herron added that Ross has been “an unbelievable supporter” of campus safety and security. He said Ross has an active interest in what is going on at the various campuses, and that he briefs Ross nearly every day.
NC A&T Chancellor Martin, who co-chaired the Campus Security Initiative with NC State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, agreed that Ross had made lasting contributions in this area.
“Out of that initiative, new policies are taking shape within the UNC system – training for personnel, strategic hiring of personnel,” Martin said.
Martin also credited Ross with convincing the Board of Governors, in the absence of adequate state funding, to approve a new student safety fee that has enabled new safety initiatives throughout the system.
“It helps us fund some of these very critical initiatives for enhancing the safety of our campuses,” explained Martin, “but it also helps us focus on counselors who are helping us address the growing needs of students who have mental health issues and allowing us to help those students in more significant ways; educating the students around the challenges of binge drinking and drugs; and adding campus security personnel to add greater value in protecting our campuses from external influences.”
A Life of Service
Ross’ life has been one of service to North Carolina, and he said that sense of responsibility came at an early age.
“Obviously, you’re raised with certain values and responsibilities,” he said. “My parents raised me to believe you had an obligation to do for other people, to do things for those who are less fortunate.”
Ross said he became a better student as an undergrad at Davidson College once a faculty member began mentoring him.
“My experience at Davidson made a big difference in my life, because I was not a particularly great student initially, and it was only through interaction with a faculty member, of having someone believe in me, that I was able to become more successful than I would have been otherwise,” he said. “Once you have someone believe in you and show you how to believe in yourself, you have a responsibility to pay that back.”
It was as a student at Davidson, during the Vietnam War, that he began to be aware of social injustice.
“I had an opportunity at Davidson to do an internship with legal aid,” he said. “It was my job to go and find out if certain houses met the housing code before people moved into them as part of an urban-renewal relocation project. I found that not only did many of the houses not meet the housing code, but a lot of addresses on the list didn’t even exist. There were no houses there. This was a consistent pattern – it didn’t happen once or twice; it was on every street. So that kind of information, sharing that, learning that, seeing that kind of injustice made me want to try to make a difference.”
Later in life, as president at Davidson, having a positive social impact was something he sought to encourage in his students and faculty. The potential to foster that sense of responsibility on a larger scale was one of the factors that attracted him the UNC post.
“At Davidson, it was part of our mission statement to develop students with humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds to lives of leadership and service,” Ross said. “So for me, it was about that mission of leadership and service. The scale of the public university, the opportunities it offers in access and affordability, as compared to a small liberal arts college, is significant. The opportunity to make a difference for more people in North Carolina and to serve my state is what led me to do this.”
Many within and outside of the University system have praised Ross’ sense of community service.
“I think I can speak for the faculty on this. The faculty see Tom as a man of unimpeachable integrity,” said UNC Faculty Chair Leonard. “He is someone with good judgment, and he’s worked very hard to make sure that faculty work in teaching, research and service been well-supported and respected over the years. Tom’s very well loved by the faculty and he enjoys great respect among the faculty.”
The years Ross spent as a superior court judge proved invaluable in meeting the many challenges he faced as president.
“I think I understand people better as a result of spending 17 years in a courtroom,” he said. “I’m able to see both sides of issues pretty easily. I’m cautious about making decisions before I have all of the facts. As a trial judge, my life was making decisions, whether is it was ruling on a piece of evidence or deciding on the outcome of a case. I think you learned to be measured and careful and thoughtful, to get good facts and data, to listen to people, to listen to arguments. You try to do to put yourself in a position to make a good decision.”
In recognition of that life-long commitment to doing what is just and right, the Echo Foundation of Charlotte presented Ross with its 2015 Echo Award Against Indifference, which is given to a person who works “with an eye toward peace, a heart filled with compassion and a voice against indifference.” The foundation was founded to carry out the message of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel – a call to action for human dignity, justice and moral courage.
The Echo Award is the latest in a long list of honors. Ross’ earlier recognitions include the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, the Foundation for the Improvement of Justice Award, the North Carolina Bar Association Citizen Lawyer Award, and Distinguished Alumni Awards from Davidson and UNC-Chapel Hill.
While Ross is still undecided about his future plans, he intends to spend his final weeks on the job helping to ensure a smooth transition for President-elect Margaret Spellings.
“My focus during this transitional period,” he said, “is turning over the University to my successor in really good shape—with really good chancellors and a great senior team at General Administration, financially secure and healthy institutions that are doing great work with students, and great research and great service. That’s what I’m keeping my eye on right now. When I finish, I’ll start thinking about what to do next.”
Many in the University system said Ross’ impact and legacy are assured.
“I’ve been in the North Carolina system for 30 years, so I have a deep appreciation for the growth and how it has changed over the years,” WSSU Chancellor Robinson observed. “I think honestly that Tom Ross, historically, will go down as one of the great leaders in this system. I think history will look upon him very favorably.”
Written by Phillip Ramati