UNC board adjourns with no announcements on president, board chair

UNC system board chair John Fennebresque discusses the ouster of President Tom Ross. (WNCN)

CARY, N.C. (WNCN) – The UNC Board of Governors were scheduled to bring in a candidate for the job of president  amid intense in-fighting that has many on the board pushing for the chairman to resign.

The meeting came after leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday sent a strongly worded letter to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors about the emergency meeting.

And many board members called for the resignation of board chair John Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney who pushed through the resignation of current president Tom Ross.

The meeting began at 1 p.m. at SAS, was in closed session for hours and then adjourned around 5:30 p.m.

Fennebresque did not take questions after the meeting.

The meeting’s purpose was to get an update from the search committee tasked with finding the new president for the 17-campus system currently overseen by Ross.

The News & Observer reported Friday morning that Margaret Spelling, who had been education secretary under President George W. Bush, would meet with the committee.

But the fact that the board is meeting with one candidate, and the way the search has been conducted by Fennebresque, sparked many to question the process and Fennebresque’s leadership.

In a letter obtained by WNCN, the two top leaders of the General Assembly, President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, confirmed that the board plans to meet with “one candidate for the presidency of the University system.”

The letter raised significant concerns. The General Assembly passed a bill requiring the board to consider at least three final candidates. Gov. Pat McCrory has until Oct. 30 to decide whether to accept or veto the bill.

Berger and Moore, in their letter, wrote, “While the bill has not yet been signed by the Governor, calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed as the Board’s attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina prior to the bill becoming law.

“Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process by which at least a few members of the Board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and procedural due process.”

In a statement issued just before the meeting, the system said there would be no votes in Friday’s meeting.

“We share their desire that the final selection not be hurried or made without consideration by the entire board,” the statement said.

Board members call for chair’s resignation

Others are raising concerns about a process and Fennebresque’s leadership. Board member Thom Goolsby, in an email obtained by WNCN, wrote a strongly worded email to the board after the Berger-Moore letter, telling Fennebresque “a majority of the board lacks confidence in your continued leadership.”


“We are now in a situation where it does not matter who the candidate is at this point, given the complete breakdown of trust the board, the legislature and, l believe, the general public has in your leadership,” Goolsby wrote. “You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow. No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.

“I join the other board members who have privately urged you to resign.  You should step aside before you do irreparable harm to the University System that we all love and in which the people of North Carolina have invested us with the responsibility of running.”

Goolsby, a Wilmington attorney, was quickly backed by board members with similar concerns.

Board member David Powers wrote Thursday to Fennebresque, “Mr. Chairman, it saddens me to say this, but it is my firm belief that the only way to be completely fair to this candidate and to act in the best interests of the University is for you to resign as Chairman before tomorrow’s meeting.”


Jim Holmes wrote that “the chairmanship must change.”

Philip Byers wrote, “Sadly I concur with Mr. Goolsby.  This Presidential search has been handled poorly in my opinion and a change in leadership is needed.”

Scott Lampe wrote, “The legislature and board have lost confidence in the chairman and the search process. This lack of confidence has tainted the entire process.  I believe it is in the best interest of the university for the chairman to step down.”


Others expressed similar sentiments, saying Fennebresque had botched the process. But several said concerns about Fennebresque’s leadership should not taint consideration of any top candidates.

The board announced in January that Ross would retire, a stunning announcement that came as Ross said he was in no hurry to retire.

At an awkward news conference that followed,  Fennebresque refused to say why Ross was being pushed out. Ross had been critical of Republican-led cuts to state universities but Fennebresque insisted politics did not play a part in the decision.

The 11-member search committee has conducted a series of closed meetings to find a replacement for Ross.

The letter from Berger and Moore also suggested the selection process has not been open enough.

“The decision and process used to elect the President of the University system should not be rushed or made without the thoughtful consideration of all members of the Board. The University system is important to the people of North Carolina. The full Board must have an opportunity to make a decision consistent with the North Carolina Constitution and laws passed by the General Assembly,” they wrote.

Ross’ last day will be Jan. 3.


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