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John Fennebresque is the political equivalent of Nepal. He sits squarely astride the two giant, grinding tectonic plates of North Carolina’s political world as he leads the UNC Board of Governors’ search for a new President.

This demands leadership skills, political skills and communications skills. And Fennebresque didn’t exactly get off to a great start on the public stage. He admits his performance at a January news conference announcing President Tom Ross’ departure was “a fiasco.” He never explained why Ross was asked to leave, so everybody assumed it was politics, a Republican board wanting a Republican hire.

Yesterday’s N&O editorial headline summed up where that leaves Fennebresque: “UNC board chair must hire well after botched firing of Ross.” It began, “It might have been one of the worst public appearances by an official in the history of North Carolina.”

Judging from Pam Kelley’s excellent Charlotte Observer profile, Fennebresque’s instinct appears to be to seek a solution somewhere in the middle. But what are the odds he can please both the Republican red-hots and the Chapel Hill lefties?

He described himself as a “moderate Republican.” The description sums up his dilemma, because it’s a formula for making everybody mad. Republicans distrust moderate Republicans, Democrats dislike all Republicans and Independents dislike both parties

Fennebresque is no dummy. You don’t get to be vice chairman of McGuire Woods by being a dummy. But this is high-stakes politics. It’s a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for the university system and the state. The media spotlight will be hot and unforgiving. The political pressures will be about a 10 on the Richter scale. And the board’s choice naturally will be compared to Tom Ross, Erskine Bowles and the sainted Bill Friday.

Good luck.

Fennebresque may be due some sympathy. But the only sympathy in politics is between symbolism and syphilis in the dictionary.

 

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