Education

Margaret Spellings visits NC, plans for first weeks as UNC president

Margaret Spellings, the newly elected president of the North Carolina public university system makes comments during the University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill Oct. 23, 2015.
Margaret Spellings, the newly elected president of the North Carolina public university system makes comments during the University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill Oct. 23, 2015. AP

UNC system President-elect Margaret Spellings was in town this week, meeting with people about the big job ahead – leading the state’s 222,000-student public university system.

She dined Sunday with UNC President Tom Ross, who will step down in January, and she met with chancellors of the 17-campus system Monday. Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, is mapping out a plan for her start as system president in March.

The UNC system’s Board of Governors is likely to appoint an interim president to serve for about two months. Spellings will arrive just two weeks shy of a bond referendum in which North Carolina voters will be asked to approve $2 billion in borrowing – about half of which would go to university construction. Spellings joked in an interview Monday that she would “show up at the victory party, God willing.”

In the initial weeks on the job, she said, she’ll travel the state, visiting every campus and meeting faculty, students, trustees, legislators and others. “I’m calling it my world tour,” she said.

The first order of business is a bit of healing among the UNC system governing board, which has been marked by infighting in recent months. Dominated by Republicans, the board was recently called to the legislature to account for a closed-door meeting where, in a split vote, it gave 12 chancellors significant raises.

“Before we can get going on the big priorities, there’s a need to help build some collegiality and common cause in the board and with other stakeholders. This is not like a big secret, right?” she said. “I think I can help do that. I hope I can, because we’ll be distracted from working on the things that we all care so deeply about if we don’t do that first. I would start with that. I think that’s a lot of relationship building and listening.”

Before she has packed the first box for her move from Texas to North Carolina, Spellings already faces political storm clouds.

Last month, student protesters at a forum on diversity at UNC-Chapel Hill called for her dismissal. Last week, the Campus Y, a progressive student organization at UNC, posted a statement on its Facebook page, urging the removal of Spellings, whom they called “a troubling administrator.”

They cited an incident a decade ago when, as education secretary, she threatened to strip funding from a PBS children’s show that depicted gay characters. The group also criticized her service on the board of the Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix, which has been investigated for its recruiting practices.

Spellings said she read the demands from the protesters, which called in part for disaggregated data on college students’ completion rates by race and income. “My gosh, it sounds like something I could have written,” she said.

This is a time of change. People know it. There’s a lot of anxiety about it, and we have to be responsive to that.

Margaret Spellings, president-elect of the UNC system

Facing uphill charge

The idea mirrors Spellings’ major initiative, the No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to hold schools more accountable for minority achievement.

When asked how to confront that kind of opposition, Spellings has a simple approach: “Meet with them. Listen. Get to know them. Understand their frustration and the righteousness of a lot of what they’re saying.”

It may be an uphill charge in a state where the Republican-led legislature and governing board have been at odds with faculty and students on issues such as financial aid and academic freedom, but Spellings said she aims to be a bridge between the two worlds.

“This is a time of change. People know it,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about it, and we have to be responsive to that.”

Spellings believes her experience in Washington can help her work across the aisle. “It has to be about the ideas and the ideals,” she said, “as opposed to party.”

Spellings has sought the advice of modern university leaders with political backgrounds, such as Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system.

So for now, she is on the phone constantly with people from North Carolina. She has watched speeches of the late, revered UNC president, Bill Friday, who led the system for 30 years. She can even quote him.

She has also sought the advice of modern university leaders with political backgrounds, such as Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system. Daniels, a Republican, is the former governor of Indiana. Napolitano served as secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama.

“People know in their gut, and particularly in this state – irrespective of where you are on the political spectrum – everyone understands the value of this institution to the success of this state,” she said.

“It has been the differentiator in why North Carolina is North Carolina and others are not,” she added. “It’s not an accident that you’re growing at 9 percent a year and thriving.”

As for the naysayers, Spellings said she hoped everyone would give her a chance.

“They have no interest in me being a flop, I would hope,” she said. “I certainly don’t.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

  Comments