On the day UNC President Margaret Spellings announced her departure from the UNC system not even three years into the job, she deployed her sense of humor when answering a question about the political quagmires she’s experienced in North Carolina.
“I think we’ve done a good job,” she said, “notwithstanding the hurricanes of all kinds.”
She was talking about actual storms, like Florence and Michael, and figurative storms, like the battles over the state’s HB2 transgender bathroom law and a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam.
What she didn’t explicitly mention was the swirling tempest in her own boardroom.
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The 28-member Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors has turned over so much that only two people remain who recruited Spellings in 2015. Support for her was shaky among new members who joined the board last year and began a series of initiatives that challenged her managerial authority over the 17-campus system. The board has been marked by infighting, largely between two camps — those who supported Spellings and those who didn’t.
Now, the system must reboot again after another abrupt departure of its leader. The previous president, Tom Ross, a Democrat, was fired by the board in 2015 and left in 2016 in what some viewed as a political ouster. Now, three years later, the Spellings era is over.
At Thursday’s announcement that UNC Health Care CEO Dr. William Roper will succeed her as interim president, Spellings, Roper and board chairman Harry Smith were all smiles. Roper said he was “bullish” on the university’s future.
They were putting on a good face for the university system with its 237,000 students — the state’s so-called “crown jewel,” a key engine of North Carolina’s economy.
Spellings said the resignation was her decision, but the board gave her a $500,000 separation payment on the way out.
Smith, a Greenville businessman who became the new board chair in July, praised her, saying North Carolina was “blessed beyond measure in having Margaret Spellings at the helm.” But he acknowledged the difficulty of “the atmosphere and issues that we had to work through, which were emotional and challenging.”
Others were more blunt.
“I do believe that the leadership of our board has gotten too involved in the management of the university in certain cases and that’s why Margaret Spellings is leaving,” said Steve Long, a Raleigh lawyer. “And that’s a tremendous loss.”
Long said he wished she had stayed for the entire five years of her contract, which was to run into 2021.
“I feel like we’ve lost a great leader, and if she had been given greater authority, full authority to run the university, she would stay,” Long said. “She did love this job. She told me.”
Spellings was matter-of-fact about it, saying changing times require changing leaders.
“Governance is always being calibrated and re-calibrated over and over,” she said. “That’s part of the fun of the job. It’s part of the job. It’s part of the character of the enterprise.”
Several members who have been critical of Spellings in the past could not be reached or declined interviews this week.
Though her start was rocky, with student protests on the day she walked into the job, Spellings managed to win friends during a methodical statewide campaign to promote her streamlined agenda.
She coined the strategy “Higher Expectations” and she talked about the need for affordability, accountability, efficiency, transparency, student success and data-driven decisions. She said she wanted to create a college-going culture in North Carolina, opening the doors to more low-income and rural students across the state. The 17 chancellors signed agreements with her, pledging to meet specific targets for progress on those measures.
The board didn’t seem to openly disagree with her agenda, and neither did state lawmakers. Tuition remained flat or decreased for North Carolinians, and yet the university came out ahead with better budgets from the legislature, including $51 million annually to cover a significant tuition reduction at three campuses.
Still, things didn’t run smoothly in the board-president relationship.
In late summer of 2017, a majority of the group wrote a scathing letter to Spellings, then-chairman Lou Bissette and UNC-Chapel Hill officials, criticizing their communication, without board approval, with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, over security concerns and the future of the Silent Sam monument. They said Spellings and the others had acted in a way that was “wholly unacceptable.”
That was followed by the board, in split votes, pushing for changes aimed at Spellings, including reorganizing her staff and moving the UNC system out of Chapel Hill.
And this year, Spellings’ choice for the Western Carolina University chancellor’s job pulled out after the board declined to vote on her recommendation, with a board member citing problems with the candidate’s resume.
“Those are the kind of things that were disturbing to her,” said Leo Daughtry, a board member and former Republican lawmaker from Smithfield, adding, “Those are the kind of things that I think you could say added up to breaking the camel’s back.”
It also bothered 10 former Board of Governors members, who took the unusual step of calling out the current board in August, in a piece published on the higher education advocacy website, Higher Education Works. The bipartisan group said the current board was increasingly politicized and its recent deliberations constituted “clearly bad governance.”
“We just said we had a governance issue, and I think we do,” said Paul Fulton, a former UNC business school dean and co-chair of Higher Education Works. “I think it’s hurting our state.”
On Friday, an opinion published by the group lamented that Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, was headed back to her home state.
“With her background, her values and her political sensibilities, it’s difficult to understand why things didn’t work out for Spellings,” said the Higher Education Works editorial. “She had potential to be a great President of the UNC System, and it’s unfortunate her presidency didn’t last longer – North Carolina’s loss will be Texas’ gain.”
It’s not unusual to have clashes among leaders in corporate or higher education governance, said Buck Goldstein, who teaches entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-authored a recent book on higher education called “Our Higher Calling.”
“When disagreement turns into mistrust, then often the roles become distorted and the policy makers feel the need to become operators or administrators,” Goldstein said. “I think there was some element of that happening.”
Long said when a new group of board members came in, they wanted a reformer — more of a reformer than Spellings.
“They were frustrated with higher education because they look at the inefficiencies, the high salaries and the imbalance on political viewpoints.,” he said. “They just feel like higher education is broken and somebody needs to come in and make changes.”
But, Long added, “I feel like they should have been more understanding of the complexity of the issues.”
Washington Post columnist Jeff Selingo wrote on Friday that blunders by university governing boards can contribute to the sliding public opinion of higher education. He cited UNC and the University of Maryland, where a recent scandal has played out over the death of a football player.
“The tumult in Maryland and North Carolina revealed university systems that have become almost ungovernable,” Selingo wrote. “It’s absurd to think that just a single board made up of political appointees who are volunteers can do an effective job of oversight in an era when universities face a multitude of risks.”
Spellings may have reached the conclusion that she had done all she could do in North Carolina, and it was time to exit the stage, Goldstein said.
“What she has put in place has been as good as any system in the country right now on the key issues of accessibility, affordability, the whole experiments we’re doing with lower tuition,” he said. “I mean, it’s the talk of the country in terms of really innovative, thoughtful policy on higher ed.”
Now, Roper has an opportunity at a fresh start, and maybe a chance to build some equilibrium with the board, Goldstein said. “I’m confident that Dr. Roper and the Board of Governors have reached understanding,” he said, “because if they haven’t, I don’t think he would have taken the job.”
Frank Grainger, a Cary businessman and board member, said other leaders may not be interested in the UNC presidency once it comes time to launch the search for Spellings’ ultimate successor. “t was a tough search to find her and to be able to land her once we found her,” said Grainger, who served on the last search committee.
Long said that any search may be far down the road, anyway, speculating that the board could decide to remove the “interim” label from Roper’s title.
“He represents the establishment,” Long said, adding, “It’s sort of an implicit acknowledgment that this whole thing about [the new board] coming in with dramatic changes overnight did not work.”
Bissette, an Asheville lawyer and immediate past chair, said he was relieved with the choice of Roper, but disappointed at Spellings’ exit.
The board has become more politically active in the past few years, and less diverse in partisan and geographic terms, he said, with fewer representatives from the western part of the state, Charlotte and the Triad. More members are from the Triangle, with more ties to the state legislature.
“It’s more active in the day-to-day affairs of the university than it has been in the past,” he said. “All of that makes the job even more complex and complicated.”
Smith pointed out that with pressure building on higher education and the 24/7 nature of the jobs, college presidents are serving shorter terms. Research from the American Council on Education bears that out: a 2017 study showed the average tenure of college presidents in their current roles was 6.5 years; in 2006, it was 8.5 years.
But Spellings’ three year stint is well below average.
An editorial in the Fayetteville Observer warned that Spellings’ ultimate replacement “will be stepping into a snake pit.” Writing for The News & Observer opinion page, retired UNC faculty member Stephen Leonard called the environment “a poisonous caldron.”
Bissette said the previous UNC presidential search committee screened about 100 candidates, leading to the hire of Spellings as “the clear choice.”
“It’s an excellent job, it’s one of the best jobs in higher education in the country,” he said. “I would hope we would still be able to attract great talent to that job. We’ll just have to wait and see.”