Photo by Dan Sears, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors, in telling system President Tom Ross in January that he could serve one more year but no more, offered no specific reason other than, well, it was time to start planning for a change.
By next Jan. 3, when his tenure will end after five years, Ross will have turned 65 – the age at which previous system heads have retired. Ross, however, was hoping to stay on the job.
“When I came here, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be ready to stop working at age 65, and I’m not ready to stop working at age 65,” he was quoted in The News & Observer of Raleigh as saying. “So I don’t know how much longer, but I wasn’t planning on leaving in the near future.”
Ross could have made his intentions as clear as a bell when he came aboard. But in the meantime, he has had to deal with a Board of Governors that has been turned inside-out in terms of its political makeup – reflecting the Republican surge to power in the General Assembly.
Inconveniently for him, the widely respected former judge and Davidson College president happens to be a Democrat, and moreover someone who helped support progressive causes as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Even as the board praised him to the skies for his performance in office, he obviously flunked the smell test among hyper-partisan Republican legislators and their board appointees – the same appointees who recently voted to close a UNC-Chapel Hill anti-poverty center headed by the outspokenly liberal law professor Gene Nichol. So Ross will have to go.
Nobody disputes that the board is within its rights to hire a president of its choosing, and victorious political parties don’t often surrender their prerogative to fill key posts with their allies and soulmates, if not their campaign bankrollers.
What’s so troubling about Ross’ forced departure is what it signals about the current board’s beliefs and priorities in setting policies for the 16-campus university system – a system that is one of North Carolina’s greatest resources, but one whose greatness could wilt in the absence of a stout commitment to its support.
Those beliefs and priorities are only faintly discernible at this point. But there is a school of thought among conservative legislators and certain board members that views the university enterprise with suspicion. It’s seen as too indulgent, too lax in its standards, too liberal in its political outlook, too much of a drain on taxpayers who foot the bill for students who in many cases shouldn’t be there in the first place and/or who won’t emerge with sufficient skills to land a worthwhile job. These are young people, the thinking goes, who should have learned a trade rather than expecting the public to subsidize their infatuation with literature or whatever.
Like many conservative critiques, this one has elements that are impossible to dismiss out of hand. But look to Tom Ross as a university leader who takes the broad view. He recognizes that for all its occasional faults, public higher education as furnished by the UNC system boosts the well-being of the state and its people in countless ways. He recognizes that it must not be allowed to erode.
In other words, if Ross has become persona non grata, it’s fair to conclude that his philosophy has become unacceptable as well. And since that philosophy is grounded on the cornerstones of access, affordability and public service, it’s scary to think that the Board of Governors apparently has other ideas.
To absorb Ross’ own summary of his aspirations for the university system and the challenges it now faces is to be struck with sad amazement that he’s been told in essence to start packing.
In a recent speech in Raleigh to the National Public Affairs Forum, excerpted in The N&O, Ross implicitly described the mindset of his antagonists:
We increasingly view our colleges and universities as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers. Places that only train people for the workforce. We hear constant calls to drive out costs and produce more product at less cost. There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence and more about operational efficiency. We seem to measure the value of education to our students only in immediate post-graduation earnings. Again, I am all for accountability and efficiency, but if that is our sole focus, we may fail to provide the return on investment that is perhaps most valuable for our students – the ability to think, reason and communicate more effectively.
He decried the budget cuts that have been accompanied by tuition increases, backing away from the notion that public universities should be funded above all by public investment. He decried the failure to properly support research efforts that now bring in annual grants topping $1 billion as they seek to extend the frontiers of knowledge.
Click here to read Ross’ speech – it’s worth the time. Here are some of his concluding thoughts:
As a state and as a nation, we must decide whether our society still values higher education – particularly public higher education. There is an ongoing debate – sometimes beneath the surface and sometimes more overt – about whether higher education conveys a public good or a purely private benefit. The value of higher education is not fully measured by one’s job title or earnings level. Higher education has value beyond the individuals who participate in it that extends to the public at large. …
If we increase educational attainment in North Carolina, we will have fewer people in poverty, there will be less demand for social services, fewer people will end up in our correctional system, more people will have better health outcomes, and we will have stronger communities with more civically engaged residents. Education is indeed the great equalizer. It is the pathway to opportunity.
This state, under the current regime in Raleigh, already is taking great risks in setting policies that further repress those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder rather than helping them move up. If the UNC system – its leadership muzzled, its finances ravaged and its mission narrowed — is forced to participate in those policies, an even more ominous cloud will darken the state’s future.