‘Conversation With’ speaker Thomas W. Ross advises students to be flexible, become leaders

Photo of Professor Ron Wright interviews Thomas W. Ross during the Spring 2017 'Conversation With.'

Professor Ron Wright interviews Thomas W. Ross during the Spring 2017 'Conversation With.'

Wake Forest Law’s “Conversation With” committee welcomed former University of North Carolina and Davidson College President Thomas W. Ross on March 22, 2017,  to the Worrell Professional Center. Professor Ron Wright led the conversation with Ross.

“There is no lawyer I’d rather put in front of you than Tom Ross,” Dean Suzanne Reynolds (‘77) said during her introduction. “Today, you’ll see two principles: be guided by your principles to do that best you can do and as you gain experience, take on bigger challenges.”

The “Conversation With” program invites professional role models to inspire students with candid stories about the law. A North Carolina native and highly respected public figure, Ross reminded students to be flexible as career paths shift.

“When you graduate, I hope you will be like Tom Ross,” Dean Reynolds added.

Born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, Ross received a degree in political science from Davidson before continuing his education at UNC School of Law.

“The law school experience has done more for me than anything,” Ross said. “It has given me more opportunities and made me better at my work at every turn.”

At just 33 years old, Ross became a Superior Court Judge in North Carolina, where he served for 17 years.

“I knew very little  about how to behave in a  criminal courtroom,” Ross said. “I never paid a lot of attention to judges because I was always focusing on the jury or my own case. So, I went to a group of senior lawyers and asked how to improve. Asking for help from people that know better than you is important. It’s about being willing to put in the work to learn.”

He then worked as the director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts before serving as the chief executive for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Inc. From 2007-2010, Ross served as a the president of Davidson College.

“I got a call from somebody asking if I’d be interested,” Ross remembered. “I literally laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding?’ When I held my first faculty meeting, the staff knew I wasn’t an academic. But I encouraged them to build a consensus and work together. I learned something in the legal system on how to mediate.”

In 2011 he was named the president of the 17-campus University of North Carolina, and remains President Emeritus. He currently serves as the first Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He is also the president of the Volcker Alliance.

“When you’re in a community group, people are going to look to you for leadership,” Ross advised students. “You need to step up. One way to contribute to your community is through leadership.”