University of North Carolina provost Robert N. Shelton will be the next University of Arizona president, returning to his home state to take the reins from retiring President Peter Likins.

Shelton will start July 1 at a salary of $550,000 a year.

The Arizona Board of Regents voted unanimously Friday to appoint Shelton as the UA's 19th president, choosing him over three others. The regents voted in a packed meeting room in the Marvin D. "Swede" Johnson Building after more than three hours of closed deliberations.

"I'm very gratified the quality if this institution is such that we would attract the quality of people who were finalists," said Regent Fred Boice, who led the search committee. "Dr. Likins has set a very high standard for this position, and we're certainly hoping Dr. Shelton will take it higher and better."

Shelton himself relieved the suspense, chiming in too early on a telephone conference call with reporters. He spoke briefly once the vote was taken.

"It's impossible for me to tell you, especially by phone, how thrilled I am at having the honor to be chosen as the next president of the University of Arizona," he said. "It's an honor beyond description."

Shelton, 57, was selected over Tom Campbell, dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley; Deborah A. Freund, provost at Syracuse University; and Yash P. Gupta, dean of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Search consultant Ann Hasselmo said she's long known of Shelton's national reputation from his time at UNC and UC-Davis, and said he was an enticing candidate from the start.

"He was one of my very first phone calls," she said. "His area of research, his writings and his expertise dovetail very nicely with the areas of expertise at the University of Arizona."

As UA president, Shelton will oversee a $1.2 billion annual budget, more than 10,000 employees and 37,000 students.

In the conference call, Shelton said his campus visit felt like a homecoming, with the familiar sights, sounds, smells and rhythm enhancing the position's appeal.

"When I got the call I think I levitated a couple feet off my chair," said Shelton, who was the only candidate recommended formally by both the faculty and students.

Shelton said word is just getting out at UNC and he's received some congratulations, but the first sign most of UNC will see is today at the men's basketball game between the Wildcats and Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.

"I'll know more about the reaction after I show up at the basketball game behind the Arizona bench," Shelton said.

UA Provost George Davis said he's known Shelton from annual meetings of provosts from top schools in the United States and Canada, and Shelton "emerges as one of the best in that arena."

"I'm so pleased," Davis said. "What he brings to the University of Arizona presidency is obviously so positive, I knew if he were chosen it would be a dream for those of us in the central administration."

Erin Hertzog, acting student body president, said students surveyed their counterparts at all four universities in reviewing the candidates.

"We're thrilled. He came with the highest recommendation from his students. We were floored with the responses we got," she said. "It's a relief to know we got someone who is a fighter for the students."

Student Regent Ben Graff, a search committee member, said that when the candidate pool was well over 100, Shelton stood out so much from a student perspective he was hoping Shelton would be a finalist.

"I feel very comfortable in Dr. Shelton being the best fit for our university," he said. "Any one (of the finalists) would have been a great university president, but Dr. Shelton is the best fit."

Shelton said one goal is moving the UA to the top 10 public universities in the country, which he said is realistic with the expertise on campus.

"What appeals to me so much is the land-grant roots, it's breadth and taking excellence in so many areas to benefit society," he said. "I would like to see this university be identified as the place where certain key issues of society are solved."

The College of Medicine expansion in Phoenix is a "tremendous opportunity right off the bat," he said. "That gives us a huge chance to serve the people of the state."

Shelton said the fight for money will also be a focus, both at the Legislature and from private donors.

"Support of public higher education these days requires balance. The days of states' supporting their universities to the extent no one else needs to is over," Shelton said. "We have to make the case to them why we're important, not only for this day but for the future."

Shelton promised he'll be accessible to the students, saying he can accomplish a lot more by getting out of the office. Shelton said he'll make multiple trips to Tucson, and both he and Likins pledged a smooth transition.

"Peter has not only stood for excellence at the University of Arizona, but has put a human face on that excellence," Shelton said.

Likins, who became UA president in 1997, said he and Shelton have similar leadership styles, with some people even saying to him that "Bob Shelton is a tall Pete Likins," he said.

Likins said he admires the way the regents handled the search process.

"Fred Boice as chair of the search committee deserves all the praise we can muster. He did a magnificent job," Likins said.

"We're thrilled. He came with the highest recommendation from his students.

We were floored with the responses we got.

It's a relief to know we got someone who is a fighter for the students."

Erin Hertzog, acting UA student body president

● Contact reporter Eric Swedlund at 573-4115 or at eswedlund@azstarnet.com.