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Spellings’ performance will shape Fennebresque’s legacy

Board chairman John Fennebresque reaches out to Margaret Spellings after introducing her as the new president of the University of North Carolina system on Friday.
Board chairman John Fennebresque reaches out to Margaret Spellings after introducing her as the new president of the University of North Carolina system on Friday. AP

John Fennebresque’s resignation Monday as chairman of the UNC Board of Governors was hardly a surprise, given the acrimony on the board in recent days. Still, it was no doubt an extraordinarily painful decision for the Charlotte lawyer.

For all of Fennebresque’s flaws, he seems to truly love the University of North Carolina, as the Observer’s Pam Kelley conveyed in her profile of him in May. He worked with the legislature to protect the system’s budget, and labored to save Elizabeth City State University and East Carolina University’s medical school.

His tenure, though, is defined by the ouster of President Tom Ross, and Fennebresque’s handling of it. Fennebresque led the effort to bounce the well-respected Ross, then botched the aftermath by singing Ross’s praises and never giving a coherent explanation for forcing his departure. Fennebresque later admitted that he handled it poorly. And while he seemed genuinely pained over that, he never could undo the damage.

He then led the search for a replacement in a very secretive manner. Under Fennebresque’s leadership, the search committee did not have the faculty or any other vital constituency meet with any candidates – including much of the BOG itself – before settling on Margaret Spellings as its choice. And while board leaders may have obeyed the letter of a bill requiring three finalists’ names to be brought before the board, none but Spellings, apparently, ever appeared in person.

Spellings is Fennebresque’s hand-picked candidate, so her performance in coming years will define his legacy. If she proves to be a visionary, savvy, inclusive leader, that will in time put a little polish on Fennebresque’s tarnished reputation.

Fennebresque is a leader, not a politician, and he can certainly be impolitic. His days as chairman were probably numbered from the day he took the job last year. My guess is that today he’s torn between the pain of leaving a university system he loves and a sense of satisfaction that he gave it his all and left it, in his mind, with a promising future. – Taylor Batten

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