Commentary

Tom-Ross-116By now you probably know that the UNC Board of Governors, all of whom were elected in the last four years by the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, voted this morning to force UNC President Tom Ross to resign effective January of 2016. Sarah Ovaska has a good rundown of the meeting and the aftermath.

Rumors about the dismissal started early this morning and were confirmed by the board after a closed session that lasted more than two hours.

There was no public discussion when the board returned to open session, only a vote on a cryptic “employment package” for the president. The board and Ross issued a joint statement  that praised Ross’ performance and said the “timeline for transition was different” between Ross and the board. In other words he was forced out.

After the meeting Ross and Board Chair John Fennebresque met with reporters in one of the most bizarre press conferences you will ever see, with a combative Fennebresque unable to answer a basic question asked by reporter after reporter; why exactly was Ross forced to step down.

Fennebresque said it had nothing to do with his performance, the joint statement said that too. Fennebresque said he was very pleased with Ross’ efforts for the UNC system, that he had been doing a wonderful job.

He said it was not related to Ross’ age—he is 64—and Ross said explicitly that he was not ready to retire. Fennebresque said it had nothing to do with the scandals about athletics and academics at UNC-Chapel Hill, that Ross has handled those situations “admirably.”

And Fennebresque said it had nothing to do with politics either, the hardest answer of all to believe given the rumors about pressure on the board from legislative leaders to make a change.

It was about nothing apparently. UNC President Tom Ross, a man respected throughout North Carolina and across the country for his intellect, leadership and integrity, was being forced out for no apparent reason. Yes, Ross will get a severance and will remain on the job for a year but that is not the point.

He is being dismissed, force to resign before he wants to leave and for no reason that the head of the board that is firing him can identify.

What a cowardly and pathetic decision.

It has to be politics and the folks behind it at least ought to have the courage to admit it.

Supporters of the university and taxpayers across North Carolina deserve at least that much if a sadly overtly political board is firing a leader who they admit is doing a wonderful job running one of the most important public institutions in North Carolina.

News

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to take on directly the question of whether same-sex marriage bans violate the Constitution.

Here’s the language from the order:

The petitions for writs of certiorari are granted.

14-556             OBERGEFELL, JAMES, ET AL. V. HODGES, RICHARD, ET AL.
14-562             TANCO, VALERIA, ET AL. V. HASLAM, GOV. OF TN, ET AL.
14-571             DeBOER, APRIL, ET AL. V. SNYDER, GOV. OF MI, ET AL.
14-574             BOURKE, GREGORY, ET AL. V. BESHEAR, GOV. OF KY, ET AL.

The cases are consolidated and the petitions for writs of certiorari are granted limited to the following questions: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

A total of ninety minutes is allotted for oral argument on Question 1. A total of one hour is allotted for oral argument on Question 2. The parties are limited to filing briefs on the merits and presenting oral argument on the questions presented in their respective petitions. The briefs of petitioners are to be filed on or before 2 p.m., Friday, February 27, 2015. The briefs of respondents are to be filed on or before 2 p.m., Friday, March 27, 2015. The reply briefs are to be filed on or before2 p.m., Friday, April 17, 2015.

The cases come to the court from four states in the Sixth Circuit — Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky —  and follow that circuit’s decision upholding same-sex marriage bans in each of them.

News

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors pushed out the head of the state’s university system on Friday, sparking a search for a new leader of the 17-campus system.

Tom Ross, who had served as president since 2011, will remain in the president’s role until January 2016, while a national search is underway for his successor.

tom-ross

UNC President Tom Ross

Precise reasons for his announced departure weren’t articulated Friday, other than statements from UNC Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque about the board’s general desire for a transition to a new leader.

The UNC Board of Governors met for close to two hours in closed session before announcing the changes.

“The board felt like at the appropriate time there should be a transition to a new president,” Fennebresque said, in comments to reporters.

Fennebresque also disputed media reports that Ross’ age was a factor. Ross is 64, and prior UNC system presidents had left their positions at 65. Ross said he was interested in working past that, and had hoped to continue in the job leading the public university system.

“I love it and I would love to be here forever,” Ross said.

Ross’ new terms of employment with the university system includes a salary of $600,000 for the next year, a tenured position at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government and $300,000 for a year to conduct research following his expected 2016 departure from the president’s office.

Conversations about Ross’ termination only began this week, Ross said, and he wasn’t made aware of any single event or issue that turned the Board of Governors against him.

Fennebresque went to lengths at a press conference with reporters to emphasize that Ross had been a strong leader that had the support of the board of governors, despite Friday’s announcement that the board wanted to part ways.

“This board believes Tom Ross has been a wonderful president,” Fennebresque told reporters Friday after the announcement about Ross. “Fantastic work ethic, perfect integrity.”

Ross’ departure was announced Friday after months of speculation about his future after his relationship with the UNC Board of Governors became more fraught.

Ross came to the UNC system after serving as the president of the private Davidson College. He previously had worked as a judge, the head of the state’s administrative office for the courts, and the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a Winston-Salem based group that funds several progressive nonprofits in the state. (Note: the N.C. Justice Center, which N.C. Policy Watch is a part of, receives annual funding from ZSR.)

He led the university through a period of rapid change, and significant budget cuts. The university system received more than $400 million worth of cuts in 2011,

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News

VoteCitizens United v. FEC  — the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts in elections — turns five next week.

In recognition of this “milestone,” Reuters has a cogent explanation of the 5-4 decision and the havoc that’s followed.

Points that can’t be emphasized enough:

  • Outside spending has since dwarfed that of candidates and political parties.

In the wake of Citizens United, there has been an explosion in spending by outside interests the likes of which we have never seen before. They have spent almost $2 billion in total since the ruling five years ago.

Below the presidential level, this spending was largely concentrated in a handful of close races in key battleground states. Outside groups now routinely outspend both candidates and parties in pivotal races.

  • Individual “mega-donors” now control elections, while the rest of us barely matter.

Since 2010, the top 195 individual donors to Super PACs and their spouses gave nearly 60 percent of the total that Super PACs spent — many times the amount contributed by business corporations.

All this is happening as ordinary Americans are giving less to political campaigns. In 2014, the number of reported federal contributors (those giving $200 or more) dropped for the first time in decades. Small donations are also down.

During this time of historic wealth inequality, individual mega-donors have more clout than at any point since Watergate. While these few voices are now much louder, many others are increasingly muffled.

  • Elections are now opaque as dark money has exploded.

While federal candidates and political parties are required to disclose all their donors above $200, outside groups need only do so if they qualify as political action committees (PACs). Since the Citizens United ruling, 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and other groups have emerged to spend money in elections. They do not register as PACs, and they can keep all their donors secret. This is the dark money that has influenced many races. Donors who want to spend six or seven figures in elections without being identified funnel their money through these groups.

[Dark money] played a critical role in Republicans winning the Senate in November. Consider, dark money accounted for fully 89 percent of all outside spending to support Cory Gardner, the winner in Colorado, 86 percent to support David Perdue, the winner in Georgia, and 81 percent for Thom Tillis, the winner in North Carolina.

News

For the first time in at least a half century, a majority of American public school students live in poverty, according to a new report released by the Southern Education Foundation.

Fifty-one percent of the nation’s public school students were eligible for free and reduced lunch programs in 2013, according to federal data. In North Carolina, that figure stood at 53 percent—and in the south overall, the numbers of poor students were the highest.

Lyndsey Layton at the Washington Post explained the significance of the new development:

The shift to a majority poor student population means that in public schools, more than half of the children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home to succeed, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

It also means that education policy, funding decisions and classroom instruction must adapt to the swelling ranks of needy children arriving at the schoolhouse door each morning.

Back in 2006, a report by SEF highlighted how low income children became a majority of the public school students in the Southern states. The authors made this observation:

Currently the South alone faces the implications and consequences of having a new majority of low income students in its public schools… the South also faces a new global economy that requires higher skills and knowledge from all who seek a decent living. In this brave, new world, the people and policymakers of Southern states must realize that continuing the current, uneven level of educational progress will be disastrous.

They must understand more fully that today their future and their grandchildren’s future are inextricably bound to the success or failure of low income students in the South. If this new majority of students fail in school, an entire state and an entire region will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital in Southern states to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy. It is that simple.

With today’s news, the president of the Southern Education Foundation had this to offer:

“This is a watershed moment when you look at that map,” said Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, referring to a large swath of the country filled with high-poverty schools.

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,”he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”