Spellings: 'Let me manage' UNC system

Posted September 26, 2017 3:00 p.m. EDT
Updated September 26, 2017 5:40 p.m. EDT

— In recent weeks, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors has chided UNC President Margaret Spellings, has ignored a chancellor's plea to leave a pro bono legal center at the UNC School of Law alone and is weighing slashing the central administrative offices of the 17-campus UNC system.

Spellings says enough is enough.

"Let me manage the enterprise, and let them set policy," she said of her relations with the Board of Governors in a recent interview with WRAL News. "Lee them see, understand and defer to the chancellors and me, who have a lot of experience."

A majority of the 28-member board took Spellings to task last month over her handling of the protests calling for the removal of the "Silent Sam" Confederate monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. She and Chancellor Carol Folt sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper seeking additional security on campus in the wake of a violent protest over a statue removal in Charlottesville, Va., but 15 Board of Governors members said Spellings should have consulted the full board before going to Cooper.

Two weeks after that flap, the board dismissed Folt's argument that the UNC Center for Civil Rights serves a vital function and unceremoniously stripped the center of the authority to litigate on behalf of clients – usually poor people seeking a fair shake in housing, employment or voting disputes – saying the law school should focus on education and not advocacy efforts. The board also set up study committees to look into cutting the size of UNC General Administration and moving the system's administrative offices from Chapel Hill to Raleigh or Research Triangle Park.

Spellings is no stranger to the world of politics, having served as U.S. education secretary under former President George W. Bush, and she recognizes there's no getting around politics when dealing with a board appointed by state lawmakers.

"We're in a political arena," she said. "Everything in a public setting is going to have politics."

Still, the Board of Governors needs to "major in the majors," she said, referring to big-picture items, and not delve too deeply into the UNC system's operations.

"Operational issues are super important, but what we really do is drive the future of North Carolina through a better educated populace."

The belief that providing higher education to more people will boost the state's fortunes pushes Spellings and is what she wants as the board's focus.

"If you don't have a post-secondary degree in 2017, you're pretty much on a dead end," she said. "What high school education was to our parents ... must be the new standard for post-secondary education. High school diplomas are virtually ubiquitous. We just need to set our sights higher and our expectations higher."

Toward that end, the board has been giving her administration the flexibility to centralize some functions, such as getting campuses on common technology platforms, while decentralizing others to make UNC more user-friendly for students.

Spellings, who 12 years ago convened the Commission on the Future of Higher Education – it later became known as the Spellings Commission – said she is disheartened that higher education continues to face issues of affordability and accessibility, but she says progress is being made.

"It still takes students too long to get in and out, and it costs them too much," she said, adding quickly that a college education "is still worth every penny."