After the president of the University of North Carolina system, Tom Ross, was asked to resign, a group of students in Chapel Hill have established a petition to have the decision overturned.
The petition—which came to light Tuesday after the resignation decision was made Jan. 16—was introduced by United for UNC, an Chapel Hill-based student group. It argues that Ross is being forced to resign because his political views were not aligned with the UNC system's Board of Governors. Although Ross will still serve until January 2016, or until the board finds a successor, under the current decision, the petition demands that he be reinstated as president until he chooses to step down.
Since Ross became president in 2011, the UNC system has faced its share of issues—ranging from economic hardship to a recent academic scandal involving Chapel Hill athletics. The board, however, expressed that Ross’ job performance was not the reason for his departure. They did not provide a concrete explanation for why the decision was made.
“The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary,” explained a statement released jointly by Ross and the board. “This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’ performance or ability to continue in the office.”
Steven Greene, professor of political science at North Carolina State University, felt concerned the board has failed to provide an explanation for why Ross was being asked to resign.
“I’ve yet to hear something better than ‘we wanted a change in direction of leadership,' which I would say is pretty meaningless,” Greene said.
Despite the assurances from the board that this was done without concern for Ross' performance, this uncertainty has led Greene and others to wonder if the board’s decision was done for political purposes. Greene noted, however, that he could not know for sure that this was the case.
The Board of Governors—appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly—is considered to be of a primarily conservative make-up, and Ross is considered to be more liberal-leaning.
“It's only reasonable to assume that it was political,” Greene said. “As much as we would like the university system to be non-political, it is political. Anything that takes up a substantial portion of the state budget is inherently political.”
Tamar Birckhead, associate professor of law and member of United for UNC, cited political concerns as the group's motivation for creating their petition.
"The Board of Governors has already been very clear about its motivations—it's about politics, and politics alone," she said. "It's about the fact that they are operating at the behest of and in concert with the Governor and the General Assembly."
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The petition introduced by United for UNC was launched Jan. 24. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, the online appeal had garnered more than 1,090 signatures.
"This is a politically motivated attack by a radical Board that values partisanship over responsible university governance. It is an attack on academic freedom. It is, ultimately, an attack on the UNC System, one of the finest public institutions of higher education in the world. The Board of Governors must reverse its irresponsible decision and reinstate Tom Ross," the petition reads.
In a joint press conference with Chairman of the Board of Governors John Fennebresque, Ross made it clear that he had no intention of leaving his position at this time.
“I wasn’t planning on leaving in the near future,” Ross said. “But the board did have a different timeline, and I respect their right and prerogative to select the president.”
UNC system presidents have commonly retired at age 65. Although Ross will turn 65 this year, he Ross said he had not planned on following this trend before the decision by the board was handed down.
James Moeser, chancellor emeritus and professor of music at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that Ross was highly respected during his tenure.
“I think he was held in extremely high regard. I think he is seen as strong, fair, judicious and he has been strong and protecting of the university from interference from special interest groups and political groups that have axes to grind,” Moeser said. “I think he has been very strong in keeping the university on course.”
Andrew Perrin, professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill, noted that this Board of Governors had micromanaged the university system more than prior boards, but he did not know if that played a role in their decision.
“Many of us—at Carolina in particular—are definitely concerned that the board seems to be paying a lot of attention to micromanaging the intellectual life of the university,” Perrin said.
He added that he had "no reason to believe or not believe that this was part of their request to have President Ross retire.”
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the UNC School of Journalism, noted that neither he nor anyone he had spoken to was aware of any tension or animosity between Ross and the board.
“I don’t doubt that there have been some behind-the-scenes discussion and debate, but I don’t recall some huge controversy that got on television one night," Guillory said. "The system doesn’t work that way, but obviously the board, under its current leadership, made a decision [Ross] wasn’t pleased with.”
Greene was one of many faculty who did not expect such a decision from the board.
“I think a lot of people were just surprised by this decision. This did seemingly come out of nowhere,” Greene said. “There were no major conflicts or anything that people knew about that would suggest this was going to happen.”
Burley Mitchell, a former member of the board and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, commented that, while he personally would not have voted to remove Ross, it is not something that people ought to be particularly troubled or concerned with.
“I have no reason to believe that this is some partisan conspiracy to take the university right-wing or anything like that,” Mitchell said. “It's normal human relations, and you get the people who you know and who you trust the most. It’s a purely business decision.”
Unlike Mitchell, Greene expressed some concern, particularly over how the board might select the UNC system’s new president.
“I’m concerned that they’re going to appoint someone who has a different vision for higher education that doesn’t appreciate the value of liberal arts, that sees college as a job-training ground," Greene said. "I think it would be a mistake if we did in fact head in that direction."
While there is an amount of uncertainty and confusion surrounding Ross’ departure, Mitchell did make it clear that he sees no reason to suspect this Board of Governors has anything but the university’s best interests at heart.
“I think this board is just as committed to the university as my board was,” Mitchell said. “I think it's just a new team that wants to do things their own way, and folks ought to just calm down and get on about their business.”