UNC system head Tom Ross pushed out of job, leaves in 2016

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- UNC system president Tom Ross is stepping down from his position leading North Carolina's 17 public universities after being forced out by the UNC Board of Governors Friday.

In a statement, the UNC Board of Governors said it has decided to begin the process of leadership transition and that Ross's resignation will be effective January 3, 2016.

"This decision has nothing to do with President Ross's performance or ability to continue in the office. The Board respects President Ross and greatly appreciates his service to the University and to the State of North Carolina," read the statement.

Click here to read the statement (.pdf)

Ross turns 65 in June. The past four presidents of the UNC system have left after reaching age 65, but it is not a requirement under state law or the school's formal policies.

"When I came here I made it clear that I wasn't going to be ready to stop working at the age of 65 and I am not ready to stop working at 65," said Ross at a news conference with reporters Friday.

However, Ross said he respects the board's decision.

Click here to read Ross' official bio.

"I would love to be here forever, but the board has the legal right and authority," said Ross.

Ross became president in 2011. During his tenure, he's had to face repeated challenges, including budget cuts and a major academic scandal at the system's flagship school in Chapel Hill.

There are also mostly new faces on the now Republican-led Board of Governors. The decision to force him out drew immediate criticism from North Carolina's top Democrat: Attorney General Roy Cooper.

"I'm deeply concerned that the forcing out of President Ross is another blow to higher education in North Carolina at a time when we need universities to lead in innovation and critical thinking," Cooper said in a statement. "He has led the University system through difficult times, striving to give students the skills they need for tomorrow's jobs."

However, Board of Governors Chairman John C. Fennebresque told reporters it was not about politics. Asked if politics plays a role in board decisions, he responded "it doesn't even come up."

In a statement, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory called Ross "a great partner and a long-time friend of my family."

"I want to especially thank him for helping us build bridges of cooperation between our K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. I look forward to continuing to work with President Ross to strengthen the university system as we work to implement our Innovation to Jobs initiative, which we introduced today during the Board of Governors meeting," said McCrory.

In a tweet, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said, "Thanks to UNC President Tom Ross for his dedication, leadership & service to the entire University & especially @UNC."

The ABC11 I-Team received an email sent from the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty assembly chair, which is critical of the Ross decision.

"Anyone who knows the work Tom has done for public higher education in North Carolina will have questions about the wisdom of this decision, but as the board makes its reasons public, you can judge those for yourselves," said Stephen Leonard.

The email also urged the faculty to renew its commitment to the students and citizens of North Carolina.

Ross is a Greensboro native and UNC law school graduate. His career has included serving as a state Superior Court judge, president of the private Davidson University, 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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