Bill Friday, Dick Spangler, Molly Broad, Erskine Bowles, and Tom Ross were all exceptional leaders of the University of North Carolina. They came from a variety of backgrounds and brought different leadership styles to one of the most important positions in higher education in the country.
I believe the UNC Board of Governors has hit a home run in selecting Margaret Spellings as the sixth president of the UNC system.
While some critics and the media have focused on the process for selecting Spellings, it is of much more and lasting importance to focus on the results of that search.
As the top educational leader in the George W. Bush administration, she brings a wealth of experience and contacts which can only strengthen an already-excellent system.
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Some have criticized her for not having risen through the ranks of academia. I would remind these critics that previous UNC presidents have come from business, government, foundations and non-profits. Only one could be labeled a career educator.
President-elect Spellings, in her role as U.S. Secretary of Education, initiated the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She has been a strong and effective voice especially in the areas of accessibility, affordability, and accountability – all important issues for UNC as higher education is transformed to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs. She is a supporter of performance-based funding in higher education, a concept endorsed by Gov. Pat McCrory and likely by the Board of Governors.
Those who criticize the process have most likely never been involved in high-level searches. If they had, they would understand why the searches need to be confidential. As a former journalism teacher and newspaper reporter, I understand why the media are adamant that searches be conducted in the open. I respectfully disagree. I commend Chairman John Fennebresque and the search committee for its outstanding work as they spent hundreds of hours in reviewing qualified applicants from around the world and in interviewing and seriously considering more than a dozen candidates. To have involved all 32 members of the UNC Board of Governors, faculty, staff and students would have indeed created a circus atmosphere. Thank goodness the majority on the Board of Governors did not succumb to the pressure to open the process.
There is a great deal of hypocrisy in some of the criticism about Spellings’ political experiences. As long as most of the past presidents of UNC were liberals, that was OK. However, when a Republican Board of Governors chooses a highly qualified leader with a Republican background, it is suddenly not OK. Frankly, political skills rank at the top of qualities needed for an effective president in today’s changing world of higher education.
It is past time to put aside partisanship and whining about the process and give President-elect Spellings and the UNC Board of Governors the opportunity and support to lead a great university system to new heights. We are not going back to the “good old days” when a small clique of North Carolinians called the shots in public higher education.
Kirk, a Republican, is Chairman Emeritus of the State Board of Education and former vice-chair of the State Board of Community Colleges.