The Pulse

How would Margaret Spellings do as UNC’s president? Chronicle of Higher Education tries to answer

By: - October 19, 2015 2:07 pm

Lots has been happening in regards to the search for the next president of the University of North Carolina system, with bickering and acrimony on full display.

To sum it up simply, it’s a bit of a mess.

A growing number of UNC Board of Governors members are publicly expressing their discontent with chair John Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney, and calling for him to step down from the leadership role.

Former federal Education Sec. Margaret Spellings at Friday's UNC Board of Governors meeting.
Former federal Education Sec. Margaret Spellings at Friday’s UNC Board of Governors meeting.

Then, House and Senate Republican lawmakers, who hand-picked all 32 members of the governing board, are now complaining the board is thwarting their desires by ignoring a bill (which hasn’t been signed and isn’t yet law) requiring the top three candidates for UNC job to go before the full board instead of just a single candidate.

And Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is chiming in on the growing public spectacle as well, saying he doesn’t like the new bill’s reach into the UNC presidential search and won’t decide if he’ll sign it until Oct. 30, the same day it would become law with or without his signature.

Oct. 30 just happens to the next scheduled meeting for the UNC Board of Governors, where they presumably could take a vote to choose the next president.

Meanwhile, the name of the top candidate has also been leaked, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, despite great emphasis that the search would remain confidential up until the end.

Spellings, herself, even walked into an open portion of a public meeting of the UNC Board of Governors Friday, where nearly two dozen members of the press were assembled. N.C. Policy Watch snapped a photograph of her there.

She served as education secretary under President George W. Bush and now heads Bush’s presidential center.

Lost in all the political drama is what Spellings would bring to the UNC system if selected.

The Chronicle of Higher Education took a stab Friday at figuring that out.

From the Chronicle:

What might make Ms. Spellings an appealing candidate to the board?

Professors might prefer a president who has come up through their ranks, but these days, public-university boards see political experience as an asset. After all, dealing with the state legislature is a key part of the job.

Ms. Spellings has political connections and a national profile without the baggage of someone who’s held or run for office, said Donald E. Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education. The board probably sees her as someone who could forge relationships between the system and the state legislature. And, he added, they may think Ms. Spellings could offer stability to a system that’s had more than its share of recent turmoil.

“I don’t think she would be seen as a polarizing figure,” Mr. Heller said.

At the department, Ms. Spellings was known for pushing accountability, he added. A system head, on the other hand, advocates for the institution, and “in many cases that means pushing against intrusion from the federal government.”

But that doesn’t mean leading the system wouldn’t allow Ms. Spellings to sustain her accountability push, Mr. Heller said. Another part of the role is holding the system’s campuses accountable.

States are divesting from higher education, noted Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, who served on the Spellings Commission. That means public-college leaders have to ask for more support. “I’d think of Margaret as a very able advocate and somebody who could navigate the politics of a state legislature,” Ms. Haycock said. Part of that, she added, means knowing that in return for resources, state leaders will expect results.

You can read the entire Chronicle article here.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.