Education

Former Bush education secretary to lead UNC system

Posted October 23, 2015 5:24 a.m. EDT
Updated October 23, 2015 7:17 p.m. EDT

— After a tumultuous seven-month search, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted unanimously Friday to name a former member of President George W. Bush's cabinet as the next president of the 17-campus university system.

Margaret Spellings served as U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009, leading the implementation of the No Child Left Behind program in public K-12 schools nationwide and chairing the Spellings Commission that addressed higher education access, affordability and accountability. She is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

The board approved a five-year contract for Spellings, starting March 1, at an annual salary of $775,000.

"It is not an overstatement to say that education is not only fundamental to each individual North Carolinian but to the success and future of this state, our country and to peace and stability in the world," Spellings said after her election. "I will work tirelessly with all of you to ensure that each and every student in North Carolina has not only access to higher education but the skills and abilities to fully access the American dream."

President Tom Ross is being forced out after five years in charge of UNC. His announcement in January that he would leave sparked months of bickering – both through public statements and behind closed doors – among board members and between the chairman of the board and lawmakers, UNC faculty and other stakeholders.

A policy wonk who worked in the Texas legislature before joining Bush's team when he was Texas governor and then following him to Washington, D.C., Spellings asked faculty, who on Thursday blasted the search process because it lacked faculty input, to "give me a chance."

"I have skills that are different from theirs. I'm not an academic. I'm not a teacher or a researcher. I'm someone who understands public policy-making. I understand advocacy. I understand how to bring people together around a shared mission, and I have a track record of doing that in my career," she said at a news conference. "We have much more in common than separates us."

Stephen Leonard, president of the UNC Faculty Assembly, said he hasn't yet spoken to Spellings and declined to comment on her appointment, except to reiterate that he and other faculty members had gotten a chance to speak with the candidates in the presidential search.

Gabriel Lugo, president-elect of the Faculty Assembly, said he had a one-minute conversation by phone Thursday with Spellings, but nothing of substance was discussed.

"We all need to be coming in discussing, disagreeing and then coming up with the best solutions for our campuses as we move forward. Those discussions have been absent in the last year with the Board of Governors, and so, it's going to take somebody in a leadership position to turn that around, and we hope she's the one," said Spoma Jovanovic, a communications professor at UNC-Greensboro.

Student group expresses concerns

The latest protest came early Friday, when a group claiming to represent "concerned students and community members" issued a statement opposing Spellings that listed concerns about her connections to industry as well as her position on social issues.

"Spellings’ resume demonstrates that she prioritizes profit over student education," they wrote. "Spellings’ homophobic views, as expressed during her time as Secretary of Education for the Department of Education, are inconsistent with creating campus culture that serves everyone."

Spellings said in her news conference that for-profit colleges have created innovations such as online offerings that increase the accessibility and affordability of higher education and traditional universities should use such approaches to better serve their customers – students and their families.

"Higher education is changing, and we have to change with it," she said.

She declined to comment on "those lifestyles" when asked about LGBT concerns, but she noted that she criticized spending tax dollars on a PBS cartoon that featured lesbian couples.

"That's a matter of how we use taxpayer dollars, not any particular view that I have on particular groups of people or individuals," she said.

Equality NC wasn't reassured, however, calling Spellings "a vocal opponent of the gay and transgender community" and expressing concern about her appointment.

"Public universities should be spaces where LGBT youth feel welcomed and accepted," Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro said in a statement. "In order to help keep the Tar Heel State’s public universities safe, we encourage Margaret Spellings to take a hard look at what it means to be a gay or transgender student in the South."

The student group was also the latest to point to a lack of transparency in the search process.

"The issues that deeply concern us have not been taken into account," they wrote. "The board has not honored the values and interests of students, university, and community members, which have been made strikingly apparent to them via interrupted meetings, petitions, phone calls, letters, and social media contestation."

Search process criticized

Last week, it was state lawmakers and even members of the Board of Governors who publicly balked at the search and vetting process.

Board member Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington lawyer and former state senator, was so irked that he called for Chairman John Fennebresque to resign in a letter he sent to his colleagues last week.

On Friday, however, a calmer Goolsby was pleased with Spellings' election.

"I did criticize, but I'm very happy with President Spellings," he said. "We look forward to having her here. We look forward to a wonderful tenure."

Board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro real estate developer, objected to a hastily called meeting last Friday in which board members met with Spellings, but on Friday, he backed her nomination.

"I've been extremely vocal about the search process, but my concerns have nothing to do with the candidate," Kotis told the board before its vote, adding that the board needs to revise its policies and procedures for future executive searches.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger likewise were more conciliatory Friday than last week, when they suggested in a joint letter to the board that "at least a few members of the Board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and due process."

Before leaving session at the end of September, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 670, which directs the 11-member search committee to bring at least three names to the full Board of Governors. That bill hasn't been signed into law yet, and Gov. Pat McCrory doesn't have to take action until Oct. 30.

On Friday, Moore and Berger had nothing but praise for Spellings.

"She has been a leader in public education at the highest level, and we trust she shares our passion for making our university system the best in the nation," they said.

Spellings was the only name to surface in the search to replace Ross, although Board of Governors member Ann Goodnight said Friday that the board discussed three other candidates during a meeting in Cary last Friday.

Goodnight also noted that the search committee interviewed 14 people during the process, with Spellings being the first.

"(After her interview), we went around the table, and it was 100 percent by the search committee that this woman would be a great leader for UNC," she said.

Spellings says she used to building consensus and plans are starting by visiting every UNC campus and listen to concerns.

"I'm going to get to work and build relationships with every single stakeholder," she said. "I know a good bit about the business. I know we think we have a lot in common about where we want to go together, and I expect to have extremely productive relationships with every one of them."

Jovanovic said Spellings has to make up a lot of ground.

"She's in a deficit position in terms of trust, and that's because of the process itself," she said.