Leadership & Governance

What's in a President's Inbox the Day He Gets Fired?

February 05, 2015

The president of the University of North Carolina system, Thomas W. Ross, was forced out of his post on January 16 by the system's Board of Governors. With the surprise announcement came allegations of politically motivated meddling by board members, most of whom were appointed by a Republican legislature inaugurated after Mr. Ross took office.

But with the news also came messages of support from professors, administrators, and various state luminaries. The 300-some pages of emails addressed to Mr. Ross on January 16, obtained by The Chronicle through an open-records request, shed little light on the forces behind his ouster.

But they provide a rich portrait of a president's professional connections and his personal relationships, as well as the turmoil that follows a sudden change in the state's leadership.

Fittingly, one of the first messages Mr. Ross received was from his predecessor, Erskine B. Bowles, who offered encouragement before the meeting of the board at which his ouster was made final:

Shortly after that, one of the university's wealthiest and most influential donors, Fred N. Eshelman, weighed in:

In the early afternoon the prominent presidential-search consultant R. William Funk told Mr. Ross to be in touch if he had an "appetite" for pursuing another presidency:

The emails even contained a little gallows humor, as evidenced by this exchange between Mr. Ross and Michael Crowell, a professor at the UNC School of Government. Mr. Ross will join the faculty there after he leaves his post next year:

Hannah Gage, a former chair of the board that hired Mr. Ross, provided some insight into the board's deliberations. She referenced a resolution the board had apparently passed in closed session stating that its members should not comment to the news media:

That resolution was referenced in a later email from the lawyer for a board member, W. Marty Kotis III, to the system's general counsel asking for a copy of the document. The board chairman, John C. Fennebresque, who was forwarded the request, told Mr. Ross and others, "I am not going to deal with this right now."

Later in the afternoon Mr. Ross got an email summary of telephone messages, two of which came from board members:

One of the most notable emails came from Tom Daschle, the Democrat and former U.S. Senate majority leader, and his wife, Linda:

Many of the messages were from friends and aquaintances, expressing their support (along with a hefty dose of local color):

Andy Thomason is a web news writer. Follow him on Twitter @arthomason.