Education

Spellings to leave as UNC president, sources say

Posted October 25, 2018 3:02 p.m. EDT
Updated October 25, 2018 9:50 p.m. EDT

— University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings plans to step down as the chief executive of the 17-campus system, sources told WRAL News on Thursday.

Although the timing of her departure hasn't been set, Spellings wants to return to her home state of Texas, the sources said.

The UNC Board of Governors has scheduled an emergency meeting for 10 a.m. Friday morning "to consider an executive personnel matter."

One long-time history teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Spellings' often tumultuous tenure may have taken its toll on her and the UNC system.

"I actually think, in some ways, she's had to walk a hard line between what the campuses need and want and who she needs to answer to in terms of stakeholders in Raleigh," Professor Emily Burrill said.

Spellings' three-year tenure as UNC president has been rocky from the start. After former President Tom Ross was forced out in early 2015, a tumultuous seven-month search marked by student protests and board infighting ended with the Board of Governors voting unanimously for Spellings.

Student groups continued to protest her selection at board meetings for months, citing her implementation of the No Child Left Behind education reform program as U.S. education secretary under former President George W. Bush, her role as a board member for the for-profit University of Phoenix and her record on LGBT rights.

"When there's a lot of people who openly oppose your views and you continue to let that drive your decisions, I think that, as a public servant, you're poorly representing your constituents," student Sydney Cheek said.

But the anti-LGBT label quickly fell by the wayside when state lawmakers passed House Bill 2 in March 2016 to prohibit transgender individuals from using public bathrooms, including those on UNC campuses, that matched their gender identity. Legal challenges to the law named the UNC system as a defendant.

Spellings insisted that UNC campuses wouldn't violate Title IX and other federal nondiscrimination requirements – doing so would risk federal research and financial aid funding – and wouldn't take any action limiting transgender bathroom access, especially since the state law lacked any enforcement provisions.

"You all would be mistaken if you thought we were not concerned about the kind of chill this is having as it relates to the climate, the culture, the goodwill that we attempt to engender here on university campuses as it relates to free expression (and) diversity," she said at the time.

Her stance drew ire from conservatives who had hoped her experience in the Bush Administration would move UNC campuses, often seen as liberal bastions, more to the right. Conservatives also were displeased with her support of so-called Dreamers, students brought to the U.S. illegally as children who later became part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"The lives and dreams of these students were never meant to be a political statement – they just want the chance to live honestly in the only home they’ve ever known," she wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

Spellings tried to focus on improving student access to higher education and success once they arrived on campus, pushing programs that limited tuition increases and research to help students graduate on time and provide the biggest return on taxpayers' investment in their education.

"Fulfilling our historic mission to advance the public good is in many ways, the most fundamental issue we face," she said. "It’s the reason this university exists, the bedrock of everything we do."

But she sometimes bumped up against the Board of Governors in her day-to-day management of the university system.

Members expressed concern last fall that she didn't consult the board before sending a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper about the potential for violence presented by a Confederate monument on UNC's flagship campus in Chapel Hill. A student protest at the "Silent Sam" statue came one day after the letter was sent, and such demonstrations continued for a year until protesters finally toppled the statue in August.

Maya Little, a student who smeared her blood and red paint on Silent Sam's pedestal in an April demonstration had her Honor Court hearing Thursday afternoon.

The news of Spellings' departure broke during a rally in support of Little, and some said they welcomed the end of Spellings' tenure.

"There should be somebody that is actually going to be the head of this university that supports the students and keeps this campus safe," student Meghan W. said.

The board also ignored the pleas of UNC-Chapel Hill officials and closed the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC School of Law last year. The center supported poor and disenfranchised people in court free of charge, litigating cases involving discrimination in education, employment and housing, but board members said the center worked outside the scope of the law school's educational mission.

"Let me manage the enterprise, and let them set policy," she told WRAL News in a September 2017 interview of her relations with the Board of Governors. "Let them see, understand and defer to the chancellors and me, who have a lot of experience."