Taylor Batten

There’s no slack in Margaret Spellings’ rope

Margaret Spellings took over as UNC system president on March 1.
Margaret Spellings took over as UNC system president on March 1. ehyman@newsobserver.com

If Republican legislators or the UNC Board of Governors thought Margaret Spellings would be more acquiescent to them than her Democratic predecessor Tom Ross, they’re as confused as a goat on AstroTurf, as they might say in Spellings’ home state of Texas. This ain’t her first rodeo, after all.

Spellings took over as president of the University of North Carolina system in March. Ross had been dismissed in a ham-handed process that suggested his primary offense was being a Democrat. Spellings, a longtime friend of George W. Bush’s, would surely see eye-to-eye with legislative leaders and the nearly all-Republican BOG, right?

She still might. But in a recent visit with the Observer editorial board, Spellings made clear she’ll be hard to corral. She also showed a rare blend of being folksy yet keen, approachable yet commanding. And she demonstrated a charm that allows her to deftly poke at critics and friends alike without burning bridges.

She knows who her bosses are, of course. She sports a long conservative record and has appointed conservatives to a couple of key roles in her first few months. Even so, our talk with her suggested she won’t be shy about speaking her mind.

For instance, she pointed to the poor relationship between the legislature and the UNC system.

“I think there’s a lack of trust between the university writ large, including myself, and the policymakers of this state,” she said. “I don’t know why it happened, I don’t know when it happened, I don’t know how it happened, but I know part of my job is to help restore that.”

She said the legislature passes laws that affect universities without consulting with the experts at UNC who might help spell out the ramifications. “I have a lot of examples when that’s happened and I think it’s embarrassing for them, it’s embarrassing for us and it’s bad for taxpayers and students.”

Seats on the Board of Governors are prestigious political plums. Spellings thinks the state should explore eliminating some of them.

“I hope I’m not going to get into trouble for saying this too much but the governance of the university, I just wonder does it make sense to have a 32-member board … with 17 boards of trustees underneath that with 17 chief executive officers, with me and my staff of 300 in a centralized function, a legislature that sits on top. It’s just a lot of layers.

“It’s not particularly useful when you’re trying to adapt and change an institution that has to be very facile for the times. … I just wonder, is this the best way to oversee a place that’s so important to this state?”

She points to the comparable University of Texas system, which has a nine-member board, all appointed by the governor. “I’m not saying it’s better; just different.”

House Bill 2 passed three weeks after Spellings took office and has had enormous consequences for UNC. It has clearly been a headache that Spellings wishes would go away. The state stopping its appeals would help.

“My lawyer friends tell me that (federal) Judge (Thomas) Schroeder basically said ‘You’re going to lose on Title IX’,” she said. “In Texas, we say ‘when the horse dies, get off.’”

Some students and faculty members wanted Spellings dumped before she even started. She toured all 17 campuses and met with students, faculty and staff, perhaps showing she’s not such an ogre. A few days before her Observer visit, she had attended a reception in Chapel Hill.

“Some faculty member comes up to me, gives me his pitch and at the end says, ‘You’re not as bad as I thought you were going to be.’”

“I was touched,” she says with a smirk. “It’s an honor to serve, as I like to say.”

There’s that spice. How it will play with the bosses is anyone’s guess.

Email: tbatten@charlotte

observer.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.