The University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors has confirmed Dr. William Roper, dean of UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine and CEO of UNC Health Care, as interim president of the UNC System.

The announcement comes just one week after UNC President Margaret Spellings submitted her resignation to the board. Her contractual exit date is March 1, 2019, but UNC board Chairman Harry Smith announced during a news conference Nov. 1 that the president will effectively vacate the role Jan. 15.

Roper will take his seat Jan. 1. Spellings will help with the two-week transition process. She will be reachable by phone until March 1.

Nothing happened to speed Spellings’ departure, Smith told Carolina Journal.

“We wanted to make sure we had plenty of time for the transition,” he said of exit agreements struck between the board and Spellings.

As interim president, Roper will collect annual pay of $775,000, the same amount Spellings earns.

Roper, 70, announced last spring he planned to retire from UNC Health Care and the medical school in May 2019. Instead, Roper told CJ, he will sever ties with UNC Health Care upon taking his new post, collecting outstanding payments from the hospital system only for a handful of projects.

Smith declined to estimate how long Roper’s interim presidency could last.

When asked Thursday if he would consider permanently taking the president’s job, Roper was vague.

“I really do believe in public service and believe that when you’re asked to do something, [you] almost always say yes unless there’s a strong reason not to. And so I said yes to this. I will work on tomorrow, but we’re not worried about weeks and months in the future. That will take care of itself,” he said.

Roper could enter the official presidential selection process if he wanted, Smith said, but “right now we’ve made him interim and we’re excited about that. Everybody needs to take a breath.”

A long-time public servant, Roper joined UNC Chapel Hill in 1997 as dean of the School of Public Health. He became CEO of UNC Health Care and UNC’s medical school dean in 2004.

Roper, before coming to work for UNC, was senior vice president of Prudential Health Care. He served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 1993, and as a senior White House staffer from 1989 to 1990. He also was an administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration, which is responsible for Medicare and Medicaid, from 1986 to 1989.

Roper received his M.D. from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and his master’s in public health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.

The board has no official process for appointing interim presidents, UNC spokesman Jason Tyson told CJ.

The board’s presidential assessment committee recommended Roper for the job, but not before members “threw a lot of names around,” Smith said.

The assessment committee has five members: Pearl Burris-Floyd, Wendy Floyd Murphy, Anna Nelson, Randy Ramsey, and Temple Sloan.

Roper was Smith’s top pick, he said.  

Board members haven’t set a protocol for selecting its next permanent president. The body is in no rush to make that decision, Smith has repeatedly stated.

In 2010, the board established three ad hoc committees to head the presidential search. A leadership statement committee collected public input and created a list of characteristics for candidates. A screening committee reviewed the applicant pool and made recommendations to the full board, while a search committee coordinated the entire process.

That same process was used during Spellings’ selection in 2015.

Presidential search begins as Spellings exits

Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration, offered her resignation Oct. 26, just 2 1/2  years after she started the job. Spellings was elected in October 2015, and officially took office March 1, 2016. She signed a five-year contract with the university.

Spellings will receive her regular salary of $775,000, plus benefits, until she leaves office. She also will be paid $500,000 “reflecting acceleration of research leave provided for in the existing employment contract and projected performance bonus.” She’ll also be reimbursed as much as $35,000 for relocation expenses.

Spellings will not be allowed to recruit employees, but may begin service on an outside board beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

The announcement follows months of turmoil among members of the UNC Board of Governors.

“Margaret is disappointed, of course, but also relieved, in a way, and ready to move forward,” a source close to Spellings who did not want to be identified told CJ.

Board member Marty Kotis declined to comment on the search and selection process for UNC’s interim president, but offered insight into what qualities the board may seek in its next permanent president.

A North Carolinian from the private sector — someone with an advanced degree and successful business track record — would do well in the role, Kotis said.

“If I were to wave a magic wand, someone like Jim Goodnight would be at the top of my candidate list,” he told CJ.

Goodnight, a businessman worth $8.5 billion, is a co-founder of the SAS Institute, a successful software company in Cary, N.C.

Kotis also named Fred Eshelman, a former UNC board member and venture capitalist who founded the global pharmaceutical research giant PPD, is worth roughly $380 million.

Kotis and Eshelman have been known to butt heads, but the Wilmington businessman could get the job done, Kotis said.

“We need someone who knows the value of a dollar and understands the UNC System isn’t a monopoly,” Kotis said. “I’d prefer someone who would take a paycut, who is willing to go from something like a $10 million to a $1 million salary.”

Spellings collects an annual salary of $775,000, plus benefits. Her predecessor, Tom Ross, closed-out his time as president with a salary of $600,000.

Former UNC President C.D. Spangler, a billionaire businessman from Charlotte, didn’t accept a salary during his 11 years in office. He donated the money to UNC campuses, mostly contributing to the system’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.