Next UNC president is study in contradictions

Margaret Spellings speaks after she was elected president of the University of North Carolina system during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Friday, Oct 23, 2015.
Margaret Spellings speaks after she was elected president of the University of North Carolina system during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Friday, Oct 23, 2015.

Margaret Spellings apparently wasn’t angered years ago when a Texas teachers group referred to her as the “princess of darkness.” Instead, she got herself a black cape with the moniker stitched on the back.

Spellings, who’s leaving the George W. Bush Presidential Center to become the president of the University of North Carolina system, once told a Washington Post reporter that she didn’t like the limelight. But in one of her first acts as Bush’s education secretary, she touched off a culture war skirmish when she denounced PBS for spending money on an episode of the animated children’s show “Postcards from Buster” that included lesbian characters. Gay rights activists pounced, and Rep. Barney Frank fired off a letter calling out Spellings’ “meanness.”

Conservatives didn’t like it, though, when Spellings responded “So what?” to a question about the decline of traditional two-parent families. There are all types of families, argued Spellings, who at the time was the divorced mother of two young children who had moved to Washington to work in the West Wing.

Spellings’ blunt words are softened by a Texas drawl. She doesn’t mind ruffling the feathers of the education establishment when she talks about productivity and accountability. She is insistent about the need for schools and colleges to serve more and better serve low-income and minority students.

“She brings out strong feelings. She is a bundle of contradictions,” said Andy Rotherham, a former policy adviser in Bill Clinton’s administration, who describes himself as “a Margaret fan.”

“She is this big, bold woman from Texas, but she has a heart of gold,” said Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston area education nonprofit. “She is someone who cares and believes deeply in public education ... but she also believes public education needs to do much better.”

Spellings has spent her career in education policy and didn’t mind a little hard knuckle politics along the way. Karl Rove first brought her in to advise Bush on education when he ran for governor of Texas, after she had worked in the Texas legislature and the state school boards association. From then on, she would be in Bush’s inner circle, becoming domestic policy adviser in his first term and as education secretary in the second term. She’s now head of Bush’s presidential library and institute in Dallas.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Spellings navigates the world of politics without ever talking like a politician.

“She comes off as very down to earth,” Petrilli said. “She’s tough. She’s a tough cookie, and she likes that reputation of being a tough cookie.”

Spellings, he said, is a big believer that the higher education system needed more accountability, that it had become complacent and that its outcomes weren’t as good as they could be.

“I’m assuming that (the governors) at UNC know that they’re hiring a change agent,” he said.

Envisioning a data revolution

Last year, Spellings wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in which she described what education would look like in 20 years.

Students and parents will be empowered by the data revolution, able to choose education in an a la carte fashion without regard to geographic or institutional boundaries, she wrote. Students will move at their own pace and individualize their education based on the outcome they want.

More students will go to college if they want to succeed in a competitive world, she wrote, but they will be less concerned about where their degree comes from and more concerned about where a credential will take them. Businesses will do more training, especially in science and technology fields.

“From early ages through college, data and information will guide students and parents through this new world,” Spellings wrote. “They will look for the best education options like travelers today look for a Trip Advisor rating.”

This, of course, is Spellings’ view of the future, but some of it is already happening. Higher education, like so many sectors, is undergoing a transformation.

“The only reason we will not reach this better place is if the status quo prevails,” she wrote. “But the market-oriented forces that have changed so much of our world – competition, customization, technology, modern management and customer focus – are too powerful for even an entrenched educational establishment to resist.”

Can she charm faculty?

Spellings has not been about the status quo in her career, pushing reforms in K-12 and higher education. On Friday, in her introduction to North Carolina, she was matter of fact about what she sees as the need to join the revolution. She asked faculty to join the journey.

“Higher education is changing, and we have to change with it,” she said. “The faculty know that, we all know that. Our publics are demanding that. They want a good value proposition, and they want it affordably.”

Those who have worked with Spellings from Texas to Washington praise her political skills, saying she has a way of winning people over.

“She’s good at it,” Petrilli said. “She knows how to disarm them and charm them. The unknown is how she is going to connect with faculty. She clearly is not one of them. I think that’s going to be the major challenge.”

Spellings did not earn an advanced degree and has not worked for a higher education institution beyond a stint at Austin Community College in the 1980s.

But getting faculty on board will be key to Spellings accomplishing her mission. Already angered by the UNC Board of Governors’ chaotic and secret search process, faculty leaders are on alert about a Spellings presidency. A group gathered outside the UNC headquarters Friday to hold their own news conference immediately after hers. Professors said they would extend their hand to Spellings but wouldn’t talk much about her. Yet.

Spoma Jovanovic, a communications professor at UNC Greensboro, said faculty want to be active players.

“We have a president who is in a deficit position in terms of trust,” Jovanovic said. “It’s together where we will be able to talk, discuss, maybe even disagree quite a bit at times, but in the hopes of having the best possible way forward for the university system. But she is going to have to take the lead in that area.”

On Friday, in comments to reporters, Spellings asked faculty to give her a chance.

Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, worked with Spellings as a member of her 2005 higher education commission. He said he wasn’t sure how Spellings would fare in academe.

“In a university environment, you have to be very sensitive to alternate perspectives or the university community is going to start yelling and screaming at you, and it becomes counterproductive,” Vedder said. “She’ll probably be OK, but I can’t say with any certainty because she has not been a part of higher education.”

Vedder said he had spirited debates with Spellings but got along well with her. “I think she has some fixed views and strong views,” he said. “I think she’s a little hardheaded in a way, but most leaders are to some extent.”

‘Good ole girl at heart’

Spellings is closely identified with two efforts at greater accountability in education.

She was a primary mover of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001, which attempted to hold schools accountable for student performance and improving the minority achievement gap. The law put into place consequences for failing schools. The act was due to be reauthorized in 2007, but Congress never acted on it as criticism mounted about the law’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and unrealistic goals. No Child Left Behind has largely been abandoned despite its bipartisan beginnings, and Spellings herself admitted NCLB was “a toxic brand.”

Sandy Kress, an Austin lawyer and consultant who was an architect of the law, said No Child Left Behind fit with Spellings’ philosophy.

“You ought to have goals, you ought to measure how well you’re doing toward the goals, and there ought to be consequences,” Kress said. “This approach that she has is very important to her. She believes in it; she believes it strongly. People can count on knowing where she is.”

He said Spellings works hard to work well with other people. He called her “a good ole girl at heart.”

“Margaret has strong views, and Margaret has a direction she wants to go, and people like her,” he said. “She’s funny. She’s easy to be with. She makes you feel comfortable.”

In 2005, she launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which became known as the Spellings Commission. The higher education community was immediately nervous.

“People were worried that she was going to try to bring No Child Left Behind to higher education, and we all know why that analogy is a problem,” Petrilli said. “The mission of higher education is so complex that you can’t just measure it with reading and math scores.”

Charles Miller of Houston, former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and a member of the Bush inner circle, said the commission members early on agreed to tough talk in the report. Spellings was comfortable with that. He calls Spellings “a warrior.”

“Not in the sense of causing fights … but in the sense of being strong or tough when you need to be and the one you would like to be in your foxhole behind you,” Miller said.

The commission issued its report and recommendations in 2006, saying American higher education had become “increasingly risk averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”

It created a huge pushback by education organizations. The American Association of University Professors said the commission’s report largely ignored faculty and was “seriously flawed in its fundamental characterization of American higher education.” David Ward, president of the American Council of Higher Education and commission member, refused to sign the report, saying it created a false sense of crisis.

The recommendations, which came toward the end of Bush’s term, didn’t gain momentum, but many of the issues brought up in the report are now front and center on the public agenda. For example, President Barack Obama recently launched a College Scorecard meant to increase transparency of data about colleges.

The commission was a conversation starter, something that Spellings touted on Friday.

The mentality in higher education, Miller said, had long been, “ ‘We’re best in the world – send us the money and leave us alone.’ There’s still a little of that, but they’ve gotten a little more humble, because they see the threats now. Everybody does.”

What remains to be seen is whether Spellings will gain traction in her next higher education assignment. She becomes president on March 1, at a time when the state’s political leadership is Republican and the university has two centuries of liberal tradition.

Vedder, the Ohio University professor, said a Spellings presidency, might be, “at least at the moment, a good thing” for UNC.

Rotherham, the former Clinton adviser, doesn’t put Spellings into a neat category.

“She’s one of these people who doesn’t live comfortably in any particular camp,” he said. “Conservatives are suspicious of her because she believes in public education, and liberals are suspicious of her because she’s a Republican who wants to reform public education.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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