When Margaret Spellings arrives as UNC system president on March 1, she’ll have an immediate to-do list: Heal divisions on the Republican-dominated board, build bridges with skeptical faculty and win budget battles in the legislature.
Spellings, who has spent the bulk of her career working for former President George W. Bush, has no problem with the intersection of policy and politics. She said she relishes political back and forth.
“You bet,” she said Friday to reporters. “That’s what makes it fun. That’s what provides input; that’s what allows us to make course corrections where needed.”
Spellings, 57, is a former U.S. education secretary under Bush whose career has spanned politics and policy in Texas and Washington.
As UNC president, she’ll oversee the state’s public university system with 17 campuses and 222,000 students, succeeding Tom Ross, 65, who will step down early next year at the board’s request. The board gave Spellings a 5-year contract with a base salary of $775,000, plus deferred compensation of $77,500 annually and potential performance bonuses.
Friday’s vote by the UNC Board of Governors was unanimous, but it wasn’t without controversy. The election followed a contentious process that was criticized by some UNC board members, legislators and faculty. Several student and faculty protesters held signs as Spellings entered the room.
Speaking after the vote, Spellings said she couldn’t wait to move to North Carolina. She praised the state motto – Esse quam videri, which means “To be rather than to seem.” “I love it,” she said, “because it issues all of us a personal challenge.”
“We are in challenging times for higher education,” Spellings added. “While there are no easy answers or an obvious road map for the way ahead, the opportunity is clear – to firmly establish the University of North Carolina as the finest university system in the country. To accomplish this mission, we must be productive, accountable, agile and transparent. We must keep a firm grasp on our obligation to innovate, to remain the engine that drives North Carolina’s growth and assures such great quality of life here.”
Spellings becomes the second woman to lead the UNC system. She is an outsider to North Carolina but has broad contacts nationally in education and political circles. Her appointment will put a well-known Republican in charge of an institution that for most of its history has been run by Democrats.
On Friday, John Fennebresque, the board chairman who has been sharply criticized by fellow board members, mostly stayed in the background. But, with tears in his eyes after Spellings’ remarks, he said: “It’s a magnificent result.”
Search committee vice chair Ann Goodnight called Spellings a “leader of great intellect, charm and wit,” who is “politically savvy with a passion for high quality public education at all levels.”
Spellings’ career has been closely tied to Bush. She was U.S. education secretary from 2005 to 2009 in Bush’s second term. Previously, she was his domestic policy adviser and his education adviser when he was governor of Texas. She is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, the former president’s library and museum, which is on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
The oldest of four daughters, Spellings was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., where her parents met and her father pursued a doctorate in geology. The family moved to Houston, where Spellings worked in a grocery store during high school and college. She lived at home and attended the University of Houston, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“In some ways, I was a nontraditional student before the term was invented,” Spellings said. “All of my formal education has been in public schools, and I very much relate to the experience of many of the students who attend college today – those who commute, work, have families and are concerned about the cost and what the investment of time and money means to their future.”
After college, she moved to the state capital of Austin, where she worked in the Texas legislature and held positions at the Texas Association of School Boards and at Austin Community College.
In Washington, Spellings pushed for accountability in education. She was an architect and implementer of the No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to hold public schools responsible for better student achievement and a reduction in the minority learning gap. The law had bipartisan support but eventually was criticized for its unrealistic goals and focus on testing.
In Friday’s remarks, Spellings pledged to work to make sure all students, regardless of family income, have access to higher education and the American dream.
“Today in our country, we are far short of achieving this, especially for our poor and minority communities,” she said. “We must continue to excel at research, scholarship, public service and innovation, and we must close the achievement gap at all levels. We can, and must, do both.”
Although she spent much of her time on K-12 policy as education secretary, Spellings also formed a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which looked at issues of access, affordability, quality and accountability in the nation’s colleges and universities.
The effort was launched in 2005 on the campus of UNC Charlotte. A year later, the commission issued a report and recommendations, concluding that U.S. higher education was at a crossroads, faced with market, global, technological and financial pressures.
“It was bold and audacious,” she said. “We started a conversation that had not taken place before, and we delivered a seminal report on many of the issues that are still before us.”
Ten years later, she said, it’s time to take stock of it, “and see what’s left to do.”
Shortly after Friday’s news conference, Spellings caught a plane back to Texas. “Alright, I gotta hit the trail,” she said. “See y’all soon.”
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.
Born: Nov. 30, 1957, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Houston, 1979; honorary doctorate, University of Houston, 2006
Family: Two adult daughters
Career: President, George W. Bush Presidential Center, Dallas, 2013-present; president and CEO, Margaret Spellings and Company, Washington, 2009-2013; president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Washington, 2010-2013; U.S. secretary of education, Washington, 2005-2009; domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush, Washington, 2001-2005; senior adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Austin, 1995-2000; organizational director, Bush for Governor, Austin, 1994; associate executive director, Texas Association of School Boards, Austin, 1988-1994; executive director, Governor’s Select Committee on Public Education, Austin, 1988; special projects director, Austin Community College, 1986-87; consultant, Republican Party of Texas, 1982, 1984 and 1986; chief committee clerk, Texas House of Representatives, Public Education Committee, 1984; legislative director, Texas House of Representatives, Rep. Bill Hammond, 1983; area executive director, American Cancer Society, 1981-82.