New university president: ‘We must seize our time’

by Jordan Green

UNC President Tom Ross is congratulated by family members after being sworn in by retired NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry E. Frye. (photo by Jordan Green)

Speaking to an audience that included the state’s top political leaders and educators during his inauguration ceremony at NC A&T University’s Corbett Sports Center, Greensboro native son and University of North Carolina President Tom Ross said now is the time to “preserve, protect and strengthen” the oldest and one of the most respected public universities in the nation.

Ross is the second consecutive president of the university system to hail from Greensboro. His immediate predecessor, Erskine Bowles, was not present at the ceremony, but other past presidents took part in the ceremony. Ross paid tribute to Bill Friday, who was inaugurated in 1957. Friday was too frail to take part in the procession, and was seated on the platform beforehand. With evident pride, Friday reviewed the military color guard, then scores of dignitaries, then the governor and legislative and education leaders, in that sequence, as they filed into the arena.

The new president reached back further, striking a progressive-populist note by quoting from President Frank Porter Graham’s inauguration speech, delivered, Ross noted, “in the midst of the Great Depression.”

“The state university cannot, as the university of the people, be an institution of class, whether based on section, blood, money, creed, or intellectual background…. The state university can never lose the common touch…. The state university is the university of the people.”

Ross took the job as president of the university system in January after serving as president of Davidson College, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem and director of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts.

In greetings on behalf of the University of North Carolina Staff Assembly, UNC- Charlotte employee Kelley Eaves-Boykin, acknowledged the tough budget reality created by strains on state funding.

“The staff understands that you were chosen to lead in a time where we face harsh economic times, in a time where we are learning that doing more with less is a way of life and not a passing thought,” she said.

“But we know that we could not have chosen a better leader than you.”

Eaves-Boykin added that Ross asked staff to go ask their counterparts at Davidson about his leadership. They did.

With Gov. Bev Perdue, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell seated behind him, Ross spoke of the university’s “unrelenting challenges and uncertainties about how we will fund higher education in the future. He mentioned “$2 billion in documented repair and renovations needed across our 17 campuses.”

“Already, we have lost many of our talented faculty and staff through budget cuts,” Ross said. “Will that talent drain continue because we lack the resources needed to compete for the brightest minds and to secure the quality of teaching and research that they bring?” Perdue, the state’s Democratic governor, referenced the state’s pride in its university system.

“North Carolina’s history and progressive commitment to education will always stand at the heart of our state’s greatest achievement.”

Berger and Folwell, part of the leadership in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, did not have speaking roles in the program.

More than five years ago, during at his inauguration ceremony at UNCG, Ross’ predecessor warned against the challenges of globalization to North Carolina’s economy.

“I came to the sobering realization that an economic tsunami is fast bearing down on North Carolina and our entire nation,” President Erskine Bowles said at the time. “Our natural inclination might be to batten down the hatches and hope to ride the storm out. But the truth of the matter is this: If we don’t grab hold of the future and get more people educated, we are going to be crushed by the tidal wave of highly educated people from all parts of the world competing for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Since that time, the housing market collapsed and unemployment has remained stubbornly high as political paralysis and dysfunction have taken hold. Updating Bowles’ 2006 theme, Ross said last week: “We are in an economic and social malaise and fear we may never come out of it. We have heard the words ‘the new normal’ so often we sometimes believe that where we are right now is where we will stay. Well, I don’t buy. I don’t buy it. This is our time, and what we do with it is up to us.”

Despite the intended rallying effect of the statement, the audience held applause until the end of the speech. Notwithstanding humor about intercollegiate sports rivalries, the ceremony was a somber occasion.

Ross outlined an ambitious program for himself, pledging to “continue to find more direct ways for the university to help North Carolina communities and our struggling economy.”

“Advanced composite materials designed and certified right here at North Carolina A&T are being used to make cheaper, lighter and stronger replacement parts for helicopters,” Ross said. “A partner company based in Morganton is today producing those parts, employing over 25 workers.”

The Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a joint project of A&T and UNCG on East Lee Street, is further developing the technology.

Ross said he wants to raise minimum admissions requirements to ensure that students are prepared to handle course work and set stronger standards of academic progress to keep them on course for graduation. He said that while state appropriations will remains the primary source of revenue, the university will also place more emphasis on private fundraising. To reduce costs, he said he will consolidate back-office operations and eliminate low-demand programs, while funding new academic programs that are more aligned with market forces.

“We must prove once again that North Carolina’s deep-rooted belief in the transforming power of education has not been misplaced,” he said. “We must demonstrate the enduring value of the people’s university to the common good — as it not only prepares our citizens for jobs and careers, but also prepares them for lives of leadership and service to their communities and to a civil society.”