Protesters: Spellings wrong to lead UNC

Posted December 11, 2015 7:03 a.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:38 p.m. EDT

— About a half dozen people were escorted from the meeting Friday of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors after speaking out against the appointment of Margaret Spellings as the system's new president.

One by one, protesters rose, loudly identified themselves and finished their comments with "Spellings must go."

Brent Herron, associate vice president of campus safety and emergency management, said all seven of those ousted from the meeting had been asked to leave the building for the day. None will face arrest, he said.

Michael Behrent, a professor of history at Appalachian State University who was among those escorted out, said, "We think Margaret Spellings represents everything that is wrong with higher education. Her appointment really is a danger to the UNC system."

Shannon Brien, a history and Chinese major at UNC-Chapel Hill who helped organize the protest, said she hoped to encourage the board to reconsider Spellings' appointment.

Asked specifically what it is about Spellings that bothers her, Brien said, "Her history of being on the board of a company that profits off of student debt." That was a reference to her service on the board of Ceannate Corp., a business that collects student loan debt. She has also served on the board of the for-profit University of Phoenix.

After the protesters were removed from the meeting room inside the Center for School Leadership Development building, they lingered, chanting outside the room at a volume often audible by the board.

Board member W. Marty Kotis III joked that he'd support sound-proofing in future construction projects, then joined with Steven B. Long in suggesting that professors who participated in the protest should be punished.

"I welcome anyone who tries to sanction me because I feel like this is really my moral duty," said Altha Cravey, associate professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Later in the day, board Chairman Louis Bissette said he believed it was unlikely that any of the professors involved in the protest would face sanctions.

Cravey said she joined the protest because of the way Spellings was appointed and because she believes Spellings favors corporate interests over public ones.

"She should never have been a person considered for this position," said Laila Elsherif, a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill research faculty.

Elsherif objected to the way Spellings was appointed. "The university should be a democratic area," she said. "Everyone should have a say."

Should the board move against the protesters, Behrent said they'd be shooting the messenger.

"The only way we're going to make change on these matters is by taking risks," he said.

Outside the meeting, Jarvis Hall, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina Central University, called Spellings "a clear and present danger" to historically black colleges and universities like NCCU.

After Hall finished speaking, another protestor lead a call and response of the assembled protesters shouting: "When HCBUs are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back."

Other chants included "Let us in" and "Margaret Spellings' got to go."

Board member Thom Goolsby, a former state senator, said, "Absolutely not" when asked whether the board would reconsider Spellings' appointment.

"She has the full support of the board," Goolsby said, adding that the protests didn't bother him.

"I appreciate any citizen getting involved- It's a wonderful thing," he said.

Bissette said "There's absolutely no chance" Spellings won't be next UNC president.

Before the meeting, campus police officers and a bomb-sniffing dog searched the building. Authorities did not say whether the search was in response to a threat.

Friday’s meeting was also the last for outgoing system President Tom Ross, who is stepping down Jan. 3. Ross headed the state's 17 university campuses for four years. The Democrat worked with Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011.

The board name Junius Gonzales, who has served for the past years as senior vice president for academic affairs for the system, as interim UNC president. He will serve until Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary, takes over in March. He will be paid a $15,000 monthly stipend in addition to his regular salary during his time as interim president.

Board members also elected Bissette, an Asheville lawyer who has served as acting chairman for the past two months, as chairman of the board. He has been on the board since 2011 and served as vice chairman for the past two years.

D'Atra Jackson, a protest organizer, said that Ignite NC would be encouraging people to turn out at the next meeting of the Board of Governors, in January at North Carolina A&T State University.