Margaret Spellings has spent her professional life in the eye of the political storm. She served President George W. Bush as Education Secretary and political advisor. And now that she’s the choice of the UNC Board of Governors to be the new UNC system president, it’s not going to get any less windy.
First, let’s start with those who believe they have hired a quote “game-changer.”
“Secretary Spellings is a leader of national stature and experience,” says Ann Goodnight, a member of both the Board of Governors and the presidential search committee. “She is politically savvy with a passion for high quality public education at all levels. She is a leader of great intellect, charm, and wit.”
After the final vote to hire Spellings, Board Chair John Fennebresque went even further: “I have tears in my eyes right now. I’m so excited and so relieved that we have hired this special person that Margaret Spellings is.”
Relieved might be an understatement. Fennebresque has spent most of the past few months under fire over the search process. It began when disgruntled Board members went around him to the Legislature. They asked for and got a bill out of the General Assembly requiring that three final candidates be brought to the full Board.
When the search entered its final stage last week, leaders in the General Assembly publicly chastised the Board. And two Board members called for Fennebresque’s resignation.
Marty Kotis was one of them. And while he says he will support the new President, he spoke out against the process that hired her.
“I have been extremely vocal about my concerns about the search process and those concerns have nothing to do with the candidate,” said Kotis. “I’m hopeful that in the weeks to come the board will be able to take a hard look at the president and chancellor search procedure. And that we make changes that will allow us to be more inclusive and transparent moving forward and allow adequate time for through review.”
Against this backdrop of discontent, Spellings is retaining a sense of humor.
“I personally think they got a terrific result,” she joked in the post-meeting press conference.
Spellings says her political experience will serve her well in her new job.
“These are all political settings,” she said. “That’s how we make public policy in this country, and this state. In a political setting. And it’s the fun of it. Because that’s why it’s so important to be able to understand, what are we trying to do here? That our publics understand that, too. That our leaders, and legislators, and funders, and stakeholders are brought into it. And we’re moving out around that shared vision.”
Several dozen members of the UNC System Faculty Assembly gathered outside the announcement. They expressed displeasure that faculty, students, and staff were not a part of the hiring process.
“It just makes sense to consult with those who do the work of the university if you are going to govern the place well,” said Stephen Leonard, the chair of the group.
Leonard and the group said they were withholding their opinion of Spellings until they get to meet with her.
Other faculty were not so magnanimous.
“She’s a political hack. She has no experience in higher education,” said Altha Cravey, a tenured faculty member in geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. “She’s coming in solely to serve Pat McCrory and his idea of turning UNC into a vocational training school instead of a university.”
Appealing to a diverse faculty will be just one of the many challenges Spellings faces.
At the top of her list of stated priorities is a focus on affordability and accessibility - two topics she brought to the national stage with a commission a decade ago.
“We want to protect and treasure and elevate all the things that we do so well,” said Spellings. “Research, innovation, technology transfer. But we also have to turn our attention more vigorously to opportunity for all. I really, really believe that.”
Spellings will make $775,000 a year – about $175,000 more than her predecessor, Tom Ross. Ross was forced out of the job earlier this year; his tenure is set to end January 1st.
Spellings’ first official day on the job will be March 1 of next year. The Board of Governors will decide soon who will lead the university system during the two-month gap.