Martin: Who could succeed Tom Ross?

Five years ago, when the University of North Carolina board of governors was searching for a candidate to replace Erskine Bowles, I wrote in this column, “The Board will be looking for the new president who has two critical qualifications:

  1. A good feel for North Carolina’s traditions and the state’s needs, and,
  2. Successful experience at the highest level of university administration.”

Even though the current board is much different from the one that selected Tom Ross, I believe these two characteristics will be important to board members.

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

Familiarity with and experience in North Carolina politics and culture may be even more important today. Because the university is so strongly connected to the legislature, a North Carolina touch is a big plus.

Experience in higher education leadership will still be an important quality. Universities are a special enterprise and require a special quality.

“It has been tough to find the right candidate who meets both these qualifications,” I wrote. “Presidents Dick Spangler and Bowles met the first test, but not the second. President Molly Broad met the second test, but not the first.”

I made a list of possible candidates who met both tests.

On my list was Tom Ross, whose experience in North Carolina culture and public life was exceptional. But he had been president of Davidson College for only a short time. Enough for me; I put him on my list.

In selecting a new president to succeed Ross, the current board has set itself up for a very difficult task, trying to find someone who will meet the high standards Ross set in that post.

Though unspoken, perhaps, there will be clearly one other mandatory quality: the new president must not be known for his or her Democratic Party connections.

I asked an expert on Southern politics, someone who is familiar with the special nature of North Carolina’s university governance, what kind of person the board would seek. He thought they would look for someone with a conservative bent who had significant and successful leadership experience in a state university system. “Think South Carolina or Alabama,” he said.

If the current board takes my two desirable characteristics into account, who are some people they could consider?

  1. Randy Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University since 2010. A plant biology scientist and teacher, he served as vice president and provost at Purdue before coming to N.C. State, where his enabling and uncomplaining leadership style has helped move his university forward during the recent challenging times.
  2. William Roper, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, vice chancellor for medical affairs, and CEO of the UNC Health Care System, was on my list last time. He is still a nationally respected expert on health care issues, and a proven manager in the most complicated of university activities. His experience in George W. Bush’s White House could be a plus with the current board.
  3. Richard Stevens, former Wake County manager, Republican state senator and chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees. Although he never served as a higher education administrator, he knows the ropes.
  4. Phil DuBois, chancellor at UNC-Charlotte and former president of the University of Wyoming. He has shown an ability to work with business leaders in the Charlotte area to muster the resources to make his university an extraordinary and growing success.

Art Pope is often mentioned, but, even if he wanted the job, which I doubt, he is not on this list because he has not had experience in higher education administration.

All the people on my list are over or close to 65 years. But the current board specifically put aside that old custom of presidents stepping down at 65 when it discussed its decision to end Tom Ross’s tenure.

Maybe, they had an over-65 successor in mind.

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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