‘Doing More With Less:' UNC Will Emerge Stronger, President Ross Says
Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina, says the system is having to “do more with less,” but that it will emerge stronger from the current economic pinch.
He also said he sees no reason to change the status of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp as a result of his controversial firing of football coach Butch Davis.
Ross, who moved over from the presidency of Davidson College to head up the 16-campus UNC system at the beginning of the year, was in Pinehurst Wednesday for a meeting. He later came to Southern Pines for an interview with several representatives of The Pilot. Here is an edited transcript of their recorded discussion.
Q: You’ve gone from heading a prestigious private institution to heading a prestigious public one. What was the biggest surprise, and what was that transition like?
A: You know, I don’t know that there have been that many surprises, because the issues are actually quite similar. The scale of them is different, obviously. I think the adjustments for me have been around giving up some things that I particularly enjoyed in being on a campus, which is being around students a lot and being inspired by them.
So I miss that part, but I think this job is completely different than running a campus, because it’s designed to lead a system, and you’ve got all the chancellors reporting to you, so it’s their job to be on the campus.
Q: Speaking of the system, earlier in the year there was quite a bit of talk, because of budget problems, of closing one of the system’s campuses. Is that still a possibility, and what’s your thinking?
A: We have to also remember the importance that these campuses play in their community. They’re economic drivers, but they’re also a center of life. They provide opportunities culturally and educationally that those communities would all, I think, miss a great deal.
What we need to do instead, I think, is look for ways that institutions can partner and — particularly if they’re close together — regionally, so that we can look for ways, for example, for two campuses to share a function. And we’re doing that already.
We’re also looking for ways that we can bring some shared services. We do that with payroll already, and we’re looking at other ways where we can streamline. ... We’ll continue to look at those areas and we ought to do those first, before we take any steps as dramatic as closing a campus, particularly when you realize the investment the state of North Carolina has made and the taxpayers have made in those campuses.
Q: You chose North Carolina A&T as where your installation ceremony will take place. I was curious as to why you chose that institution, and on the theme of consolidating the services, have you made any progress, or are you going to make any attempts, to merge A&T and UNC Greensboro?
A: I grew up in Greensboro, so that’s the reason I chose it for my inauguration. A&T and UNC Greensboro are both great institutions. I’ve seen them during times you couldn’t get them to speak to one another, and I’ve also seen that change over the past 10 years or so.
Today we’ve got chancellors at each of those institutions that understand quite well the need for them to partner. One of the most exciting things I’ve been part of in higher education before I ever went to Davidson was when I served as chair of the board at UNCG and we were able to get interest in and ultimately build an agreement to start the joint school of nano-science and engineering.
That is going to be transformative. It is already making a huge difference if you realize that the building is not even finished and they’ve already had their first spin-out company. It’s building spare helicopter parts up in Morganton for the military and others, and it’s got tremendous potential. ...
There’s tremendous potential there for other ways they can work together, and we’re certainly encouraging that and talking to them about what some of those ways are. That’s true of Winston-Salem State and School of the Arts, as well. We’re going to be looking more at joint degree programs and all sorts of things.
Q: Can you broadly give us your opinion regarding the Carolina football program — particularly the firing of football coach Butch Davis by Chancellor Holden Thorp?
A: First of all, I think those decisions are made on the campus. That’s the way the board of governors has decided to delegate those responsibilities, but it’s also what the NCAA requires — that boards not be involved in those decisions, that they be left to the campus.
And so it was his decision, and I think he’s explained his reasons for it. I know that there are people who feel strongly about whether it was the right decision. There are also people who agree with the decision but think that the timing might not have been the best. So there are a lot of feelings about it, as there always are in athletics.
But most people I’ve talked to seem to understand that what’s really most important is the academic excellence of the institution. But I’m somebody who thinks you can do athletics and academics both at a very high level and do them well. So, I think there’s room for improvement everywhere. The NCAA has recognized that and I’m excited about some of the recommendations they’re talking about and some of the actions they’ve already taken.
Q: Can Mr. Thorp feel secure in his job?
A: I think the board of governors made that clear in their most recent statement that they are behind his leadership. They have looked at, and I have looked at as well, his whole portfolio of work, and I think a chancellor’s job is very complex on campus today. It involves lots of different aspects and he’s done quite well with a number of those, and people have indicated that his leadership has been effective, and we don’t see any reason to change it.
Q: Chancellor Thorp’s concern was about the damage to the academic reputation to the institution. How concerned are you about that?
A: I think it’s certainly a factor that one has to consider. Again, the academic quality of the university, all of our campuses, whichever ones, is so highly respected nationally. We’re considered, if not the premier, certainly one of the premier, public university systems in the country, and no one wants to see that damaged — no one who holds a diploma, for sure. ...
Athletics are important on a campus, for lots of different reasons — one of which is building loyalty to the institution, but also it’s part of college life, part of what makes college going to college fun, and that’s true whether it’s a small place or a big place.
Q: Here at The Pilot we believe very strongly that the public’s business needs to be done publicly, and as related to the football controversy, several media companies sued the university for release of cell phone records. A year since the controversy broke, many of those records have not been released despite court order to do so. Why has the university chosen to appeal those decisions, and do you recognize that it gives the impression that you’re hiding something?
A: Well, again, those have been campus-based decisions, and I don’t have all the facts, so it’s a little hard for me. I used to always say, and I still say, that one thing I learned as a judge is that you don’t want to make a decision until you know all the facts, and I don’t know all the facts involved in this.
But what I do know is that the university, as at least has been explained to me, on a number of the records to which you refer, is worried — and there’s some interpretation to support them — as to whether they are student records or not, and that they’re obligated by federal law to protect those. So they’re kind of caught in the dilemma of wanting to be cooperative, wanting to comply with North Carolina’s public record law, but also have got to worry about the federal law.
They felt like they were better off if some court told them, “This is what the law means or doesn’t mean.” There’s a dispute about that across the country, so I think that’s part of what drove them to the decision. In terms of whether they haven’t disclosed anything that was ordered to be disclosed, I’m not aware of that as a fact as to whether they’ve disclosed everything. My impression was that they have, but if they haven’t, it may be because of the volume of the request and the limited staff we have to do this stuff. ... The point is that there are thousands upon thousands of emails that one needs to go through in order to answer that request.
Q: Tell us where the situation involving Rex Hospital and Wake Med stands. [Wake Med is attempting to purchase Rex from UNC Hospitals.]
A: That is something that the hospital board is responsible for. I’m only one member on that board, but a committee was appointed to look at that offer that was made, and that’s what’s going on right now. They’re evaluating that and trying to determine as many facts around it as possible.
It came to us with a fairly bare statement of offer without any details and without any background information, and so we asked for a series of documents and a list of informational items that we felt we needed to fairly evaluate. We got some of those, not all, and I think the committee is getting pretty close to reaching a decision.
Q: You’ve got the situation in Chapel Hill, where boosters are threatening to pull their money because they’re unhappy. How concerned are you that athletics have become so important in overshadowing the academic side?
A: First of all, I’m not sure how many programs actually make money with athletics, because if you look at athletics’ budgets as a whole, there tends to be one or two revenue sports that can support the other opportunities for student athletes. I suspect that, at most of the institutions in North Carolina, that’s the case.
Whether it’s football or basketball or both, they are providing a lot of the support that allows volleyball and tennis and golf and soccer and a number of others to participate. I think the trimming of people’s donations, if that happens, will likely hurt those student-athletes before it hurts the academic side of the institutions. Because most of the donations that are given are generally usually used for athletics, which means if they have extra money, it would be going to scholarship dollars for their student athletes.
So at least, from what I’ve been told, the number of people who actually requested any money back or that have left the Rams’ Club or that have asked for a refund for season tickets is very, very minimal. In fact, I think the Rams’ Club has experienced a loss of 10 members but gained 15 during this period.
Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be some loss of revenue, but I think most of the people who are supporters of any institution’s athletic programs are supportive of the institution’s athletic programs and they think beyond one season or one coach. When Dean Smith left and things were a little bumpy there for a while, I don’t think we saw people running away from the institution.
Q: We have an outstanding community college here with an outstanding — and outspoken — president. In an interview with us the other day, he suggested that campuses like Chapel Hill should be changed so that they only handle upper classes, that everybody should actually get their first two years of college education at community colleges and then transfer. Do you have any response to that?
A: There needs to be, in my view, different pathways for different students. There are some students where a four-year, more traditional experience is what they need and want. And part of the reason might be athletics; part of the reason might be the desire to be on a residential campus and to obtain the benefits that go with that, both socially and intellectually.
There might be others where a pathway through community colleges is the right one, and I think we’re certainly looking to partner with community colleges in any way we can to make that pathway not only there but to make it more certain and clear.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to leave with our readers?
A: I know there have been lots of reports and discussions about budget cuts, and there’s no question but that we’re going to see some differences on our campuses, and students are going to run into some issues that are a result of the budget issues.
But I don’t want people thinking that the University of North Carolina is somehow going down the drain, because we’ll make it through this. It’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be a price. We’re part of the state, and the state’s having a hard time. We have do our part of that to help the state through it.
The university is a critical economic engine in a lot of ways, and I think we can lead the recovery in the state in a lot of ways if we’re supported adequately and people are willing to make the investment in higher education. If we don’t, I worry about whether the work force of the future will really be there.
So we have our work cut out. I think we’re going to have to do more with less, we’re going to have to be smarter and more innovative and more efficient and have better partnerships with the community colleges and with the military and everybody else with whom we work, but we’ll get there. We’ll get through it, and we’ll be better for it on the other side.
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