Spellings after year at UNC: 'I feel like I've rounded the corner'
Posted March 1
Chapel Hill, N.C. — From the time she was named University of North Carolina President, Margaret Spellings missed out on a honeymoon.
Critics caught her off guard protesting the process used to hire her and her credentials, but as she marked her first year in office Wednesday, Spellings said she has been able to move beyond that by building an array of relationships across the 17-campus UNC system and with alumni, state lawmakers and others.
"I've really made it a priority to reach out to those who were for me and those who were agin' me," she said in an interview with WRAL News. "I feel like I've rounded the corner."
Spellings, who served as U.S. education secretary under former President George W. Bush, said her political and private-sector experience prepared her to lead the university system.
"I'm not an academic. I'm not a scholar. I'm not a researcher. I'm not a teacher. But that's not the job I find myself in," she said. "This is a leadership role around policy-making and resource-gathering and elevating the terrific work that's going on in this university."
Still, some policies have proven more tricky than others.
"I couldn't have predicted I would spend so much time talking about bathrooms," she said, noting that state lawmakers passed House Bill 2 three weeks into her tenure.
The state law required transgender individuals, including many university students and staffers, to use the public bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates. Spellings and other UNC officials noted the law includes no provisions for enforcement and stated that university campuses have always tried to foster inclusion and diversity.
"We're caught in the middle, as I've said, between state law and federal policy, and we're anxious for a resolution," she said.
Spellings said she's encouraged about a recent bill to repeal House Bill 2, although political bickering has left that proposal at an impasse.
"If the legislature can come to some terms where we could move forward, that would be terrific. We'd love to host these athletic events," she said, referring to the withdrawal of Atlantic Coast Conference championships from campus sites across North Carolina as a result of House Bill 2.
Spellings also is in the middle of the immigration debate both in Washington, D.C., and inside the Legislative Building in Raleigh, having penned a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post in support of students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. President Donald Trump has hinted at eliminating the program created under the Obama administration that allows people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to continue studying and working in the country without fear of deportation.
"We're more diverse by the day, and it's at our peril if we don't educate our young people – all of them," she said, adding that she hopes the Trump administration is softening its stance on the issue.
At the same time, a bill introduced in the General Assembly on Tuesday threatens to cut state funding to universities that don't enforce immigration laws. Spellings said she wasn't familiar with the proposal and wants to review it with her staff.
Among her priorities heading into her second year overseeing the UNC system is a heightened focus on making university degrees more relevant in the workplace.
"That's our job – to provide those opportunities to every single person so they can see a bright future," she said.