The UNC Board of Governors’ voted last week to close three campus-based institutes and centers, coming on the heels of a beguiling decision only a month earlier to force out UNC President Tom Ross.
Many have questioned whether the board is acting on the wishes of the Republican-controlled state legislature to settle scores, silence critics and shape the university system in their own ideological likeness.
The board members are appointed by the two chambers of the legislature, so their role must be to carry out the bidding of the Republican leadership, right? Not quite.
Within the new Republican establishment, power doesn’t necessarily always flow from the top down. There are different players with different agendas, all trying to exert influence in different ways.
If anyone saw the hidden hand of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in the board’s decision to force out Ross, they should meet Marty Kotis, a Greensboro restaurateur and a longtime supporter of Berger.
Kotis cast the lone vote against a one-year contract with Ross and joint statement accompanying the announcement of his departure.
Kotis conveyed the reason for his dissent, captured in an email received by Ross on the day of his ouster.
“Ann Lemmon called at 3:30 p.m. to pass along a message from Marty Kotis,” Ross’ secretary wrote in an email. “Marty said he was completely blindsided by this. He knew nothing about it until yesterday. Marty thought the process was very disrespectful to you and you are deserving of far more respect.”
That and hundreds of other emails received by Ross on Jan. 16 were obtained by the Chronicle of Higher Education last month.
Kotis received his appointment to the board in 2013 from Berger and state Sen. Trudy Wade, who chairs Guilford County’s legislative delegation, along with the president pro tem. Kotis contributed $9,000 to Wade’s campaign in the past election cycle. Notably, he’s also dissented against another unpopular Republican move: Wade’s proposal to restructure Greensboro municipal government. A man who puts up that kind of cash to support state lawmakers, probably isn’t too worried about following marching orders.
I don’t know much about the board members from other parts of the state, but I bet there’s a similar donor relationship with the lawmakers who appointed them to their seats. Members of the board of governors are as likely to be patrons as errand-runners. Some rich people like to get their names on buildings; others might prefer to name university system presidents. Most likely, virtually all of the 34 board members have agendas of their own.
Erskine Bowles, Ross’s predecessor as president of the UNC System, seemed to have gotten a heads-up about what was about to go down.
“Go in there today with your head held high,” Bowles wrote to Ross in a message time-stamped 9:01 a.m. the day of the meeting that added some sage advice on the nature of political power.
“New boards always want to choose their own leader — nothing strange or unusual about that,” the former president wrote. “What we all can say is thank the Lord our university had the blessing of Tom Ross’ leadership for five good years.”
The architect of the transition is clearly board Chairman John Fennebresque, who likewise engineered a near-blackout on information about the decision. A voicemail from another board member, Dick Taylor, was also summarized, alongside the call from Kotis, for Ross on the day he learned he was being pushed out.
“Dick said he felt he had to support John because John asked for there to be no public discussion,” the message read. “He agreed with Marty and would have liked to see you stay on for a number of years longer.”
The official statement approved by both the president and the board makes you wonder why they were so anxious to see him go: “The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary, and that he has devoted his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office. This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’ performance or ability to continue in the office.”
As quoted in the News & Observer, Fennebresque’s remarks during a press conference didn’t make the matter any more clear.
“The board believes Tom Ross has been a wonderful president,” he reportedly said. “Fantastic work ethic. Perfect integrity. Worked well with our board.”
The Daily Tarheel’s paraphrasing of Fennebresque’s rhetorical contortions hits on what is likely the closest thing to the truth. After quoting him denying a range of theories, including Ross’ job performance, dissatisfaction among board members, politics and scandal, the newspaper reported: “Fennebresque said only that the board had a different timeline for Ross’ tenure as president and that a different leader could bring different assets, which he did not name specifically.”
It will be telling to see if the board appoints a new president this year. The terms of half of the members, including Fennebresque, expire this year. The timing is curious.
One hopes the board will take its time to find the most qualified candidate for the job instead of rushing a decision to ensure that they get to hand-select the next president. But don’t hold your breath.