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Top UNC Leader Cites Coincidence in Ross Replacement Timing

CARY, N.C. — It was a coincidence that the oversight board for North Carolina’s public university system began rewriting its 18-year-old rules for finding a new president just before the current leader was forced out, the board’s chairman said Tuesday.

Members of the University of North Carolina board met Tuesday to start revamping the framework for replacing UNC system President Tom Ross by next year. But the process of rewriting the existing search guidelines was set in motion before the surprise announcement earlier this month that Ross was being forced out.

“They’re unrelated to each other,” UNC Board of Governors chairman and Charlotte attorney John Fennebresque said.

Fennebresque previously declined to explain the reasons behind the move to replace Ross, who in 2011 took over running the state’s 16 public university campuses and a residential science and math high school in Durham. While Fennebresque praised Ross’ steady hand, integrity and work ethic, he said the board decided it was time to find a replacement.

A new policy could be adopted next month, setting out who will be involved in finding Ross’s replacement and the process they will use. Four of the 32 members on the university governing board met Jan. 9 and concluded the search policy adopted in 1996 was “overly prescriptive” and that no one group would oversee the process from beginning to end, according to minutes of that meeting.

“It’s a complicated policy, and we’re trying to streamline it to make it more effective,” Board of Governors member Joan MacNeill said.

The proposed changes include requiring search committee members to sign a confidentiality agreement to prevent them from revealing potential candidates. Similar confidentiality agreements have been required of campus leaders and the UNC Board of Governors last month removed a Winston-Salem State University trustee after accusing him of leaking names of finalists in that school’s hunt for a new chancellor.

The UNC board voted Jan. 16 to replace Ross in January 2016 or later if a successor isn’t found by then. Ross made clear he wasn’t ready to leave but accepted that the board had the right to replace him.

Fennebresque declined to discuss an online petition asking the UNC board to reverse its decision and keep the 64-year-old Ross beyond next year.

Before becoming president of the 222,000-student university system in January 2011, Ross served as a state Superior Court judge, president of the private Davidson University, an aide to a Democratic congressman, and executive director of Winston-Salem’s Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a major funder of social welfare and liberal causes.

Republicans who took control of the General Assembly since Ross took office have appointed all but a handful of the university system’s board.

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