Mark Washburn

A miracle worker comes to UNC

Board chairman John Fennebresque, left, congratulates Margaret Spellings after introducing Spellings as the new president of the North Carolina public university system during the University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill on Friday.
Board chairman John Fennebresque, left, congratulates Margaret Spellings after introducing Spellings as the new president of the North Carolina public university system during the University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill on Friday. AP

Her first miracle came on the eve of getting the job.

Margaret Spellings, next head of North Carolina’s university system, managed to unite the faculty.

Against her.

But still, that’s a start, and a rare one in higher education where the academics, their heads bulging at the lobes, are known to vigorously debate which day it is.

During what is mistakenly heralded as a modern age of transparency, Spellings was hired in an opaque ritual conducted by a secret society called the UNC Board of Governors (fancy motto: “Publicum beus damnedius”).

She was clearly the only person in this nation of 320 million uniquely qualified to run the system because she was the only one who got invited to hobnob with the board.

There was none of this nonsense so popular in modern corporate life where they say, “Would you like to meet our gang?” and make you eat lunch with a couple oarsmen hauled up from the hold to see whether you’d fit in.

There was no need for any of that because the Board of Governors knows what’s best – just ask them – from years of whacking budgets and hemorrhaging academic talent to rival institutions.

Getting cut out of the action was considered a bit of a slap to the system’s Faculty Assembly. It seems to operate under a loony impression it is entitled to have a word or two with the new emperor before five-year contracts pop out of pockets and start going around the table.

A snappy note was written and sent to the university system governors and presumably received with the grave concern the warden pays to a petition from the inmates regarding the declining gusto of the institution’s pesto sauce.

One complaint widely heard since Spellings’ hiring is that she comes to the position with the taint of strong political ties to former Republican President George W. Bush, whom she served as secretary of education and policy adviser. But Erskine Bowles had his own political ties, having served as chief of staff to Democratic President Bill Clinton and run twice for the Senate.

Bowles guided the system through five turbulent years as well as anyone could be expected during the recession.

If anything, political savvy might now be the prime consideration in picking a university system leader because the General Assembly is muscling into once-sacred territories.

Faculty and students, while tolerated on our public campuses because they fit nicely into the business model, can’t hold a candle to the power of the assembly’s leadership, which orders citizens encased in handcuffs for singing “This Little Light of Mine” in legislative corridors.

You’re off to a great start, Margaret Spellings. It can only go up from here.

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