Martin: Leaving proudly, but not with enthusiasm

“Fired with enthusiasm.”

Last week I was reminded of that quote attributed to Clark Kerr, the legendary president of the multi-campus University of California. It is what he said when, shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election as governor in 1966, university regents ousted Kerr. He joked that he left the university the same way he came in, “fired with enthusiasm.”

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

All this is to remind us that Tom Ross is not the first state public university president to be forced out of office after a change in the state’s political leadership.

In a testament to Ross’s patient consensus-building skills, the board that required his departure recognized his extraordinary talents and his service to them and the University.

Part of the statement issued by the board and Ross stated, “The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary, and that he has devoted his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office. This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’s performance or ability to continue in the office. The board respects President Ross and greatly appreciates his service to the University and to the State of North Carolina.”

Board chairman John Fennebresque said, “This board believes Tom Ross has been a wonderful president. Fantastic work ethic. Perfect integrity. Worked well with our board.”

Many of us on the outside thought that the changeover would happen long before now. The board that hired Ross in 2010, almost all Democrats appointed by a Democratic General Assembly, had quickly changed to a board composed of almost all Republicans, appointed by and responsible to a Republican legislature. This change might have led to a quick, automatic exit for Ross, who never hid his party loyalties.

But Ross showed himself to be a super consensus builder, educator, listener, and learner, who helped the new board members achieve important objectives and address legislative concerns, without unnecessarily damaging the core of the university’s mission and strength.

One example is the partnership that developed between Ross and Fred Eshelman, the successful and wealthy Wilmington businessman whose political philosophy is 180 degrees different from Ross’.

They shared a belief that only with positive direction and planning would the university continue to best serve the growing needs of the state. In their work together on strategic planning, they developed confidence with each other and a productive friendship that certainly contributed to Eshelman’s recent commitment of $100 million to the UNC pharmacy school that bears his name.

Ross has great potential to follow other departing UNC presidents in continuing a high level of public service. Some of them also left, earlier than they might have wished, as they reached their 65th birthdays.

But all continued to serve.

William Friday, after leaving the university presidency, became director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Trust, president of the Kenan Fund, co-chair of the Knight Commission, and host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina People.”

Dick Spangler returned to Charlotte, resuming his role as a business leader and important community leader.

Molly Broad became the first woman to serve as president of the American Council on Education.

Erskine Bowles continued advocacy for the kind of responsible government budgeting process that he helped develop during the Clinton Administration.

Ross will follow their footsteps. After one more year as president, devoting “his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office,” Ross will undoubtedly be tapped for new and important service that will make his supporters even more proud, including the possibility of a run for statewide office next year.

Still, we can forgive him if he is not today fired with enthusiasm for leaving the post he served so well.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information visit

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