As a slate of appointed leaders get closer to appointing a new head of North Carolina’s higher education system, details continue to trickle out about the January decision to get rid of its current president, Tom Ross.
John Fennebresque, the chair of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors was adamant during a January press conference following Ross’ renegotiated contract that the move to dismiss Ross had nothing to do with politics or Ross’ performance.
He continues to say that state political leaders had no role in the decision.
“I didn’t talk to anybody, other than a few members of the board, and very few,” Fennebresque said in a recent interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “I didn’t want to get into it, for Tom’s sake.”
But the decision certainly didn’t go unnoticed by powerful politicians in the state, as seen in emails released as part of a records release show that several prominent Republicans in the state contacted Fennebresque in the days before and after Ross’ dismissal.
State Sen. Phil Berger, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state legislature, contacted Fennebresque three days before the public vote on Ross’ contract and left a message that inquired about Ross, as well as a controversial review of UNC system centers and institutes that resulted in the elimination of three academic centers.
An assistant for Fennebresque at his law firm wrote a note relaying a message Berger left:
“Phil Berger. Hope wife is better. Had conference call yesterday. He feels appropriate progress is proposed in reference to those institutes. It seems like everyone is in a good state. Headed in right direction. Interested to talk about Tom Ross situation. Thanks.”
And on the day Ross’ termination became public, Fennebresque received a message to call Art Pope, the wealthy Raleigh businessman, former state budget director and a major funder of conservative and Republican causes in the state.
Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney with the McGuireWoods law firm, says he later spoke with Pope, and informed him that rumors around the state that Pope could become the next UNC system president would not come to fruition.
“I told him [Pope] he was not a candidate, wasn’t going to be a candidate,” Fennebresque said.
Ross, a former Davidson College president and Democrat who also served as a Superior Court judge, was hired in 2011 under a UNC board dominated by Democrats. The current 32-member board, including Fennebresque, all received their appointments from a Republican-led state legislature.
Emails Fennebresque received released recently by the UNC system in response to a public records request show that many of the state’s top Republicans contacted him to express pleasure over Ross’ dismissal.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican Congresswoman from Watauga County, was one who celebrated news of Ross’s firing.
“Support your getting new leadership and hope it will be someone who will ask pertinent questions and help reshape the system,” she wrote in an email to Fennebresque sent after the Jan. 16 board of governors’ meeting.
Similar sentiments came from George Holding, a Republican member of Congress from Raleigh.
“This is certainly good news,” Holding wrote to Fennebresque. “I know you will find a great replacement.”
Fennebresque now acknowledges that he handled his discussions with Ross badly and wishes he’d brought another board member with him when he approached Ross the week before the Jan. 16 board meeting.
“I thought we were going to have a conversation, the first of two or three conversations about transition,” Fennebresque said. “I did not anticipate his [Ross’] shock and anger, and so it was an awkward conversation for both of us.”
Ross will stay in his position until January 2016, his replacement is expected to be decided by the UNC Board of Governors this fall.
Tom Ross “is working hard for the university system of North Carolina in an obviously awkward situation,” Fennebresque said. “I have nothing but nice things to say about him personally and professionally.”
Search for next UNC president continues
Meanwhile, the search for Ross’ successor continues. A presidential search and screening committee of UNC Board of Governors is slated to meet next Tuesday at Fennebresque’s law office in Charlotte.
Most of the meeting will likely occur behind closed doors, as search committee members hear about candidates the search firm has been talking with.
Fennebresque said board members have yet to talk with any candidates themselves, but that a number of people from both inside and outside the state have been approached about the job. A replacement could be announced as early as this October.
“We need a strong leader that can collaborate with the board and realize that higher education is going through titanic change,” he said.
Sarah Ovaska-Few is an investigative reporter that conducts investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance for N.C. Policy Watch