As she took the oath of office Thursday as the 18th president of the University of North Carolina, Margaret Spellings issued a call for equity, affordability and an expectation that all North Carolinians achieve an education beyond high school.
In a ceremony at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, a student-produced film highlighted the history and promise of the 17-campus UNC system. In it, two former U.S. presidents – Bill Clinton and Spellings’ former boss, George W. Bush – introduced the new university president.
Spellings appeared on the stage not in academic regalia, but in a black pantsuit, where she gave a TED-style talk on her higher expectations for higher education, her vision for a more equitable and prosperous future for the state.
“Today we are leaving behind thousands of capable students who never even apply to college because it doesn’t seem possible for them,” she said. “Low-income students enroll in college at far lower rates of their wealthier peers, even when test scores and academic performance are the same. That’s a tragic waste of talent, and we absolutely must do something about that. At a time when our state and our nation are growing more diverse – when the school-age population in North Carolina is almost 50 percent minority and growing – we absolutely cannot tolerate pernicious gaps in opportunity.”
She invoked the words of the state’s founders, who said “all useful learning” should be promoted in North Carolina’s universities.
Spellings said the best jobs today require more than a high school education, and the state must go farther than it has in the past to make that available to all.
“It’s time to raise our expectations once again,” she said. “Higher education is the next frontier – a new civil right. Every child must be able to reach beyond high school – that has to become our expectation, our promise for a rising generation. That may mean a four-year degree, a master’s or a doctorate; it could mean an associate’s degree or a professional credential.”
She said that everyone in the state has a stake in this goal. “A better-educated state holds the promise of a stronger economy and a greater quality of life – public goods in every sense,” she said.
The ceremony Thursday departed from tradition. There was no lengthy academic procession, but instead a focus on student artists. It included performances by N.C. Central University’s Jazz Ensemble and a 68-member choral group composed of students from the 17 campuses. Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis joined the NCCU musicians in performing “Misty,” and the ceremony closed with “Amazing Grace.”
The former U.S. Secretary of Education under Bush, Spellings arrived March 1 to lead a university system with a $9 billion budget and 225,000 students. She immediately faced a difficult set of circumstances. Her predecessor, Tom Ross, had been pushed out by the Board of Governors in what many assumed was a politically motivated move. Ross is a Democrat, and the board is predominantly Republican.
I’ve spent my career working to bring people together. There is strong disagreement in our democracy today, but not about this – not about the need for our public universities to serve all students well.
Margaret Spellings, president of the UNC system
The former president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Spellings encountered student protests on her first day on the job. Those demonstrations have subsided, but controversy soon engulfed the university over the legislature’s LGBT public facilities law known as HB2. The university found itself in the middle of lawsuits over the bathroom bill just as Spellings was learning her way around the system’s 17 campuses. UNC has already spent more than $1 million on lawyers to defend itself, she has said.
In the past six months, the legislature has also pushed its own agenda for the university, including a four-year fixed tuition plan and $500-a-semester tuition for in-state students at four campuses. Tuition setting has typically been the prerogative of the board with input from the president and chancellors. Lawmakers mandated that eight universities’ education schools set up lab schools to serve students now attending low-performing public schools.
In the months ahead, Spellings and the board will craft a new agenda, a strategic plan focused on her stated goals of affordability, accessibility, student success, economic impact and excellent, diverse institutions.
In an interview earlier this week, Spellings noted her observations about the public higher education system. UNC has more regulation than it needs, she said, and she hopes the new plan will have a deregulation agenda but with “stretch goals, rigorous goals” for campuses.
She wants the system to be more responsive and adaptive. Because UNC had been so well funded over the years, she said, it has been somewhat averse to change and reform. For example, she said the university should be open to tweaking the 18 percent cap on out-of-state students. And there needs to be a recognition that many campuses don’t reflect the state as the K-12 minority student population becomes the majority, she said.
In her talk, she said the university has to adapt the way it teaches, advises and guides students. “That means we must give people choices about the kind of education that works best for them,” she said. “That means straightforward tools and information about borrowing, about the career prospects of different degrees and majors, and about the expectations for success at each of our institutions.”
Several speakers Thursday said Spellings would be up to the task.
Johnny Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said he toured North Carolina’s historically black campuses with Spellings. He said she was humble, engaged and thoughtful.
“One thing that stood out most to me was her commitment to making sure that the system did everything that it could do to serve students from fragile communities,” Taylor said. “She wanted to make sure that they just didn’t get to school, but that they got through school.”
Despite the rocky political environment that Spellings encountered here, politics was pushed aside Thursday. Leaders on both sides of the aisle – former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Republican – appeared in the UNC film touting Spellings’ ability to lead others in search of policy solutions.
“I’ve spent my career working to bring people together,” Spellings said. “There is strong disagreement in our democracy today, but not about this – not about the need for our public universities to serve all students well.”
She took the oath on a historic Bible, with her two daughters by her side. Afterward, she told the story of coming to North Carolina, her daughters moving her across the country, and dropping their mom off at college, hoping that she would make some friends and find “a way to fit in.”
She joked about figuring out the North Carolina ways, including the very touchy subject of BBQ. “When asked East or West, ‘brisket’ is never the right answer,” she said, noting her penchant for talking about her home state of Texas.
Spellings also paid tribute to her modern predecessors – C.D. Spangler, Molly Broad, Erskine Bowles, Tom Ross and the late Bill Friday.
“This university has a proud history,” she said, “but the best is yet to be.”