Saying that education is the new civil right, UNC President-elect Margaret Spellings outlined her vision of public higher education in North Carolina and her goal of enhancing the university system’s quality while making it affordable and accountable to taxpayers.
Spellings invoked the university’s 200-plus-year history and the voice of the late system president, Bill Friday, who said UNC was “a mighty engine.”
“We must unleash it to address the greatest challenges of our state and our country,” she said.
The incoming president, who will start March 1, spoke Friday in Greensboro at a two-day retreat of the UNC Board of Governors. She will lead the 225,000-student university system that has a traditionally strong reputation but challenges ahead. A study of UNC under way by the Boston Consulting Group uncovered a feeling of unease among 140 leaders, board members, chancellors, faculty and students – a sense that UNC has “lost some direction and luster recently.”
The firm interviewed one person, who said of UNC: “It used to be the crown jewel of North Carolina.”
Spellings said she was “deeply impressed” with the level of talent, expertise and skill in the system. But the university’s future will be decided, she said, by how well it educates a broader and more diverse swath of the population.
In the global knowledge economy, we are required to help more people, particularly people of color and those from first generation and low-income backgrounds, to achieve at much higher levels. We’ve not done this well in the past, and we continue to fall short now.
Margaret Spellings, president-elect of the UNC system
“Historically in our country we’ve done a pretty good job of educating elites, and we still do,” she said, adding that educating elites is no longer “the only game in town.”
“It’s simply not enough,” she said. “In the global knowledge economy, we are required to help more people, particularly people of color and those from first-generation and low-income backgrounds, to achieve at much higher levels. We’ve not done this well in the past, and we continue to fall short now.”
She said a key goal will be to produce the best teachers for the state, to improve education at all levels. Financial aid also will be important, she said.
Spellings also called on everyone to respect the unique mission of each of the 17 campuses. And she set some boundaries with what has been an activist board – saying the board should govern and she, the primary voice of the university, will manage. She promised to ensure that campuses have good leaders with clear direction, and then she would “get out of their way.” She cautioned that it would impede progress to be a “cop on the beat” by micromanaging campuses.
“We must be about results above all,” she said. “Processes are important. Outcomes matter most for our students, faculty and taxpayers.”
She said the universities are owned by the people of the state, and “we can and must do more to serve them.”
Spellings became emotional as she talked about the criticism lobbed at her since she was elected UNC system president in October.
Protests by some students and faculty have zeroed in on Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary for President George W. Bush. They have expressed concerns about possible “corporatization” in higher education, raising issues with Spellings’ past service on the board of the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix and as an adviser to a company that services student loans. Some complained about Spellings’ $775,000 in base pay or her lack of an advanced degree.
“I must say that after spending most of my career in service to the public, working on behalf of all students and with people of all points of view, I’ve been surprised at the intensity of the reaction,” she said, choking back tears, “but I look forward to meeting with, talking to and learning from those who have questions about my record and my intentions. When you get to know me, you’ll see that I am driven to provide education and opportunity for all.”
There was no dissatisfaction with Spellings on Friday among the board members, who expressed universal support after what had been a contentious search process.
“You instilled a lot of confidence in all of us,” said board member Champ Mitchell of New Bern.
It’s likely Spellings will make changes at the system’s General Administration in Chapel Hill. The Boston Consulting Group’s $1.1 million study of the organization – funded by an anonymous donor – will make recommendations soon.
Spellings is scheduled to travel around the state to the campuses in the next few months. “I’ve got a lot of listening and learning to do,” she said.
But she also pledged to hit the ground running and hopes to have some quick wins in the coming weeks and months, though she did not elaborate.
Spellings said she came to North Carolina because she has long admired the university system. “Imagine how we could transform this state if we made the very best education affordable and accessible to all.”