Education

Student protests mark Spellings' first day as UNC president

Posted March 1, 2016 3:39 p.m. EST
Updated March 1, 2016 6:21 p.m. EST

— Protesters greeted University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings on her first official day on the job Tuesday.

Hundreds of students and faculty members gathered on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill to express continued dissatisfaction and frustration over Spellings' hiring. She succeeds Tom Ross, who was forced out by the Republican-controlled Board of Governors and left at the beginning of the year.

The protesters chanted "Stand up, fight back" on the steps of Wilson Library, and several students read a list of reasons why they think Spellings is the wrong choice to lead the 17-campus UNC system. The list included 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.

"We want people to know we are out here, that we are watching what the UNC system and Margaret Spellings are doing," student Richard Lindayen said. "We are concerned about what they've done in the past. That's why we're worried about the future."

The demonstration was the latest surrounding Spellings' election last fall. Students and faculty criticized what they called a secretive selection process, and protests have marred recent Board of Governors meetings.

"It's about awareness and really forcing the Board of Governors and Margaret Spellings to include students' voice in a meaningful way and faculty's voices in a meaningful way. We've been excluded," said Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Protest organizers asked those who couldn't attend the walkout to show support in other ways, and several faculty members held their classes outside on the quad.

Spellings brushed off the criticism of her record, saying she's "extremely proud" of No Child Left Behind and supports the University of Phoenix's efforts to reach non-traditional students.

"It really put a laser focus on the need of poor and minority students," she said of No Child Left Behind. "It has done a lot to drive resources around the needs of those students and start to close the achievement gap."

Spellings said she is dedicated to building consensus across the UNC system's different constituencies in an effort to achieve affordability, access, accountability and quality. She apologized for a reference to "those lifestyles" when answering a question about LGBT issues shortly after she was named president.

"I feel like it is critically important for me to represent the needs and issues of every single student in every sense," she said. "What makes American higher education as vibrant and fantastic as it is (is) that there’s such diversity."

Many protesters said that, now that Spellings is on the job, they are focused on monitoring her actions and making sure she lives up to promises she made to the Board of Governors last month that she would foster an affordable and accessible UNC system.

"We have to give her a fair shot. She's going to be here, and there's nothing we can do about that," student John Taylor said. "Stop trying to demonize her and understand she may have her flaws, but we have to work with her or we won't have a good UNC system."

Spellings plans to visit every school in the UNC system in the coming weeks to meet with students and faculty.