Viewpoint

Give Margaret Spellings a chance as UNC president

The speculation surrounding Spellings shows that liberals can be every bit as narrow-minded as conservatives.
The speculation surrounding Spellings shows that liberals can be every bit as narrow-minded as conservatives. ehyman@newsobserver.com

C.D. Spangler Jr. had an unenviable task in 1986. A billionaire businessman with a Harvard MBA, the construction mogul from Charlotte was going to be the first new president of the University of North Carolina in 30 years. And he was following a beloved legend who’d remain on the scene in North Carolina until his death in 2012, William C. “Bill” Friday.

This week, 30 years after Dick Spangler took office, there is a new president in town, Margaret Spellings. There are some tensions about her arrival, too. But first, back to that transition of 1986.

Some of Friday’s loyalists, and there were many, on the Chapel Hill campus and all others for that matter, were uneasy about the whole idea. Friday was, after all, a person who’d come out of a small textile town, Dallas, in Gaston County. He got a scholarship to attend Wake Forest College (as it was then known) for one year, then graduated from N.C. State and served in the military in World War II before getting a law degree. He won the presidency as a low-profile candidate at the age of 36.

His presidency was a success by any and all measures, and in the years afterward, he and Friday became close friends – so close that Spangler attended the small graveside service for Friday held in the old cemetery in Chapel Hill. I hope that Margaret Spellings, who took office this week as the new UNC president, will spend some time talking with Dick Spangler. It’s not that other past presidents can’t help. But Spangler and Friday mentored them, too.

The new president, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush and a long-time Bush ally, has not deserved some of the snarky comments directed at her (or a protest on her first day in Chapel Hill) because of her connection to Bush. Yes, she came to the post via a clumsy Board of Governors that dismissed Tom Ross, her predecessor.

Will she fire people? Will she order campuses to belly up for money from the Koch brothers to establish right-wing think tanks? Will she take her marching orders from hard, right-wing Republicans in the General Assembly, who are no friends of the university they perceive as one big liberal conspirator?

This kind of not-so-subtle speculation confirms that for all their complaints about narrow-minded conservatives, liberals can be every bit as narrow-minded.

Spellings has met most of the establishment cats. Now she can adjourn to the dining halls on all the campuses, or engage faculty members such as Gene Nichol, the brilliant, ultraliberal law professor. She might even like him. She can seek the wisdom of Bill Leuchtenburg, history professor emeritus of UNC-CH. She can talk with an art professor at UNC-Asheville and a soccer coach at Appalachian State and an engineer at N.C. A&T. There is much to learn from these people, far more than can be learned in designer salons.

The first lesson Spellings will learn is that most people in her university or others have no agendas at all, beyond teaching and research. For most, the university is not a platform.

Nor is it a stadium or a basketball court. It is a place to change lives (faculty) and a place to have one’s life changed and directed (students). That is a noble and profound mission. I would guess Margaret Spellings embraces that notion, no matter how much critics want to believe she doesn’t.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or jjenkins@newsobserver.com.

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