UNC President Margaret Spellings has hired former Board of Governors chairman Peter Hans on a one-year, $240,000 contract to be a senior adviser.
The position was announced in an internal letter obtained by The News & Observer. Hans, a senior policy adviser with Raleigh law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, will be a special consultant on strategic planning, online learning and other projects, Spellings said in the letter.
Hans is a veteran of the UNC board, having served 12 years, including two terms as vice chair and one as chair. He stepped down in 2015 and served on the State Banking Commission. He also previously served on the State Board of Community Colleges. He earned an undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s from Harvard University.
Hans was a policy adviser to three North Carolina Republicans – former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, then-U.S. Rep. Richard Burr and former Sen. Elizabeth Dole when she ran for office. Hans was rumored to be the preferred choice of key lawmakers for Spellings’ job during last year’s presidential search.
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“I’m just pleased to be part of the great team that President Spellings is assembling,” Hans said Wednesday, adding that his fee would be paid with non-state funds. “I think she has an optimistic and inclusive vision for higher ed in North Carolina, and she’s going to be very successful.”
Spellings has reorganized the UNC system’s General Administration in Chapel Hill, cutting 25 positions, thus freeing up $2.5 million for the creation of new jobs and other priorities. Of the 25 job cuts, eight people were laid off and six were transferred to UNC campuses. Four temporary jobs ended, and four vacant positions were eliminated. The restructuring followed a $1 million study by Boston Consulting Group, funded by an anonymous donor.
Spellings, the former education secretary under President George W. Bush, began the job in March after a tumultuous year for the UNC system that included the board’s action to end the presidency of Spellings’ predecessor, Tom Ross, a Democrat. The board, which is overwhelmingly Republican, has come under fire for its decisions from faculty groups and student protesters. Spellings, too, has been a target of protests.
The Hans hire represents the first North Carolina insider she has brought in for a top position. Otherwise, she has looked to conservatives with experience in Washington.
Her top strategist, announced last month, will be Andrew P. Kelly, now director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Kelly, who was adviser to Jeb Bush during his presidential run, will start in August in the newly created role of senior vice president for strategy and policy at an annual salary of $245,000.
The hire of Kelly has elicited criticism from some faculty who worry about a free market approach in public higher education. In an op-ed column for The News & Observer, N.C. State University professor Michael Schwalbe wrote that AEI is “the tool of its ultraconservative funders,” providing “ideological support for a free-market, anti-regulation, anti-labor agenda.” He questioned Kelly’s use of “consumers” to describe students and his opinion that tuition has been driven up by ever-increasing government financial aid programs.
This week, Kelly authored an opinion piece in Forbes, calling for bipartisan action from Congress for a year-round Pell Grant for low-income students and small surplus grants to students who take on heavier course loads to finish their degrees on time.
In addition to Kelly, Spellings plans to hire a senior vice president for external affairs, also a newly created job. That person should be announced in the coming weeks, a UNC spokeswoman said.
Her new chief of staff is Meredith Didier, who worked with her at the U.S. Department of Education and was most recently special assistant to the president of Davidson College, according to her LinkedIn page. Didier is also a former vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Her background is in communications and public affairs, and she was a senior associate in three different firms, where her clients included for-profit education companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris.
Didier’s annual salary is $205,000 in a position that is narrower in scope than that of Ross’ former chief of staff, Kevin FitzGerald, who retired in the spring. FitzGerald’s salary was $312,034, according to a state salary database for 2015-16.
“The senior leadership team and I are committed to ensuring we have the optimal structure and the right people doing the right things to advance our collective success for the students and citizens we serve,” Spellings wrote about the staffing changes.