Eric Frazier

Does Margaret Spellings understand the value of a liberal arts education?

By Eric Frazier

Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, is the leading candidate to lead the UNC system.
Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, is the leading candidate to lead the UNC system. Getty Images

If the UNC Board of Governors names Margaret Spellings to lead the UNC system Friday as expected, it likely will mark the end of two battles, but the start of a third.

It will be the end (if we’re lucky) of the sloppy fights among board members over choosing the successor to Tom Ross, the respected leader whose sacking has earned the board and the system a national black eye. It could also mark the end of the close-quarters grappling between the UNC system and the Republicans in charge of the General Assembly and governor’s mansion.

But it likely marks the start of a new fight, this one featuring Spellings and her reform-minded GOP bosses squaring off against university academics who rightfully fear what comes next will be done to them, not with them.

Board members have been famously opaque about their reasons for letting Ross go, but Chairman John Fennebresque has managed to articulate one clear reason: Changing times require new ideas.

Spellings, as the nation’s education secretary under George W. Bush, has plenty of those. A commission she convened issued a 2006 report with exhaustive recommendations for overhauling U.S. higher education.

The panel, which included former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, reached the “uneasy conclusion” that our higher education system’s sterling global reputation masks growing problems. The U.S. ranks 12th among major industrialized nations in higher education attainment.

U.S. higher education, it said, “has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.

“It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy. It has yet to successfully confront the impact of globalization, rapidly evolving technologies, an increasingly diverse and aging population, and an evolving marketplace characterized by new needs and new paradigms.”

Of course, the report represents the consensus of the group, not Spellings’ personal opinions. Still, it seems a logical presumption that this is exactly the frame of reference Spellings would bring with her.

And that’s the mindset the Board of Governors sought. Fennebresque and others have been clear that they want a change agent, even if it has been less clear exactly what they want to change.

It appears they found the Republican leader who can articulate the specifics. Let’s hope she understands that universities can’t be boiled down to profit-loss balance sheets, that there is real value in the kind of liberal arts education that sparks intellectual curiosity, fires critical thinking skills and nurtures problem-solving ability.

Skeptical faculty leaders issued a statement Thursday saying the lack of consultation in the search “will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the university community.”

She’s been hit by friendly fire, too. One of Fennebresque’s critics on the board called the chairman’s nominee – which appeared then to be Spellings – “fruit from a poisonous tree.”

They say Spellings is a smart, feisty woman with a wicked sense of humor.

If she is indeed the new leader, she’ll need all three of those qualities in the days to come.

Eric: 704-358-5145 or efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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