Margaret Spellings drove from Texas last weekend and moved into the yellow mansion on Franklin Street. On Tuesday, with significant headwinds, she’ll start the job as president of the UNC system.
It’s been four months since Spellings was elected president by the UNC Board of Governors, a Republican-dominated board that pushed out the previous leader, Democrat Tom Ross, in a messy and divisive process.
Since then, Spellings has been the target of student protesters, faculty groups, gay rights advocates and the NAACP. Critics have seized on any number of things: her board service for a for-profit university; her $775,000 UNC salary; her lack of an advanced degree; her penchant for calling students “customers”; her past remarks about a PBS cartoon; her role in the No Child Left Behind law; her hiring of a consultant with private money to study the UNC system office; and her longtime association with former President George W. Bush, for whom she was an education adviser in Texas, domestic policy adviser in Washington, U.S. education secretary and most recently, head of his presidential center in Dallas.
Spellings said this month she had been surprised at the intensity of the criticism, stifling her emotion at a retreat of the Board of Governors. A little later, she made reference to a Taylor Swift lyric.
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It seemed as if she would “shake it off” as she got settled in Chapel Hill last week. In her Texas twang, she deadpanned that the recent tornadoes were another bad omen.
Despite the protesters, Spellings has plenty of backers, and not all are the Republican variety. Former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, first met Spellings when she was adviser for then-Gov. Bush, at a time when North Carolina and Texas were recognized for the nation’s most notable progress in education.
The critics, Hunt said, “haven’t seen the Margaret Spellings I have seen.”
“She cares about people, all people,” he said. “She is determined and her passion is education. She’s a person of strong will and great energy.”
A reformer throughout her career, there’s little doubt Spellings plans to shake up the status quo here. Her goal, she has said, is to make higher education work better for more students and all kinds of students – particularly low income and minority students and adult learners.
Her point of view, she said, is informed by her own experience growing up in Houston. Her parents both worked. Her father was an exploration geologist who rode the ups and downs of the oil and gas industry; at times he was out of work.
The oldest of four girls clustered together across a six-year span, Spellings worked 30 hours a week at the Handy Andy grocery store and lived at home when she attended the University of Houston. She was an office cashier, perched on an elevated platform, surrounded by plexiglass, in control of the store’s loud speaker.
“I thought, ‘OK, I like being up here with the microphone,’ ” she cracked.
Her parents paid the $250 in tuition and a little more for book money, but she covered everything else, before the days of student loans. Her job was the means to an end, but also she said, “I loved it, honestly, as much or more as school.”
She majored in political science. After college, she gravitated to Austin to work in the Texas state house, where education policy became her focus – after all, she said, it’s where all the action is in state government. She likes to say education chose her.
“I just felt kind of called to work on these issues,” she said.
She would become Bush’s education adviser when he ran for governor, and later domestic policy adviser in the West Wing. She was an architect of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal standards and accountability law. It had bipartisan support but eventually was maligned for its focus on high-stakes testing and punitive approach.
The law was recently replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act, pushed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. Spellings said she and Bush worked with Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, to preserve “the guts” of NCLB – transparency and annual testing for every child, with results reported by race, income, disability and limited English proficiency.
“It caused, and uncomfortably so, people to have to attend to the needs of poor and minority kids and special ed kids like never before,” she said. “The fact that we paid more attention and that schools had to do something about it – you know, it’s not just a slogan. It’s had a big effect.”
In 2005, Spellings created a commission to look at the future of higher education, focusing on issues of affordability, accountability and performance. The effort made the higher education establishment nervous, but it was late in Bush’s term and there was little momentum.
Hunt served on that commission. Last year, Spellings called Hunt when she was being considered for the UNC job. He told her two things: No state cherishes its public university system more, and, people would expect her to push hard for its funding.
The commission’s ideas are likely to be in Spellings’ playbook as she begins her presidency. Will she gain traction this time?
It may depend on the landscape she faces in North Carolina. Here’s a rundown of issues and challenges for Spellings.
1. The Board of Governors. At times in the past year, the UNC system’s governing board has been dysfunctional, most noticeably in the way it forced out Ross. During the presidential search process that revealed factions, the legislature threatened to intervene. Lawmakers later called on the board to account for an improper closed meeting at which substantial raises were awarded to chancellors. The relatively inexperienced board has also been accused of trying to micromanage the university – an issue pointed out by a survey of board members. Spellings this month told the board that she would manage while its members provided oversight, and she cautioned that they must not act as “cops on the beat” with campus leaders.
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2. Bush baggage. Nearly all of Spellings’ professional career is closely tied to her former boss, President George W. Bush. Her association with two major accountability and reform efforts, No Child Left Behind and the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, were not popular among some educators. Al McSurely, an attorney for the NAACP, last week called Spellings “a woefully unqualified Texas political operative.”
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3. Faculty/student unrest. Several faculty bodies have weighed in with their opposition to Spellings. There’s also a growing movement nationally on the treatment of non-tenure track faculty, and a unionization vote looming next door at Duke University. The Faculty Forward union-backed group has targeted Spellings with a negative campaign. Meanwhile, students have orchestrated protests at Board of Governors meetings; several were arrested in January.
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4. LGBTQ criticisms. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council recently passed a unanimous resolution calling on Spellings to support academic initiatives related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues. Thirty-two faculty penned a statement that they had “deep concern” about Spellings’ appointment due to a 2005 controversy when Spellings, then the U.S. education secretary, denounced public funding for an episode of a PBS animated children’s show, “Postcards from Buster,” that portrayed gay parents. In October, when asked about the flap, she said the question was not on her particular view of “those lifestyles,” but on the use of taxpayer dollars.
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5. The future of HBUs. There is likely to be pressure on Spellings from different quarters on the direction of the state’s historically black universities. Some campuses, especially Elizabeth City State University, have struggled to attract students with the rise of minimum admission standards and changes in financial aid. A proposal in the legislature could alter the smaller campuses with new names and lower tuition. But any attempt to reorganize, merge or reinvent campuses is likely to be met with backlash from alumni and the African-American community. North Carolina has five public historically black campuses with strong heritages.
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6. Funding. UNC budgets were cut repeatedly in the years during the recession. Though funding has stabilized, there isn’t likely to be much money for anything new. One exception could be $1 billion in bond money for campus construction – if voters pass a referendum in March.
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7. Questions about Spellings’ corporate ties. Spellings has served on the board of the parent company of University of Phoenix, a for-profit university that has been investigated by the government for its practices. She also served as an adviser for Ceannate, a company that collects student loan debt. She’s left those boards behind, but will remain on the corporate boards of Capital Group’s American Funds, a mutual fund, and ClubCorp, a manager of country clubs, including the Carolina Club at UNC. These board memberships could fuel criticism by those who believe Spellings is too influenced by moneyed and corporate interests.
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8. Outsider president. Most UNC presidents have been products of UNC or men born and bred in North Carolina. Molly Broad, who served as president from 1997 to 2006, was both an outsider and the first female president at UNC, and she encountered rough political terrain.
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9. Politics. The political environment was completely reordered with the Republican majority in 2010 – for the first time in a century. Since then, Republican leaders in the legislature set about a reform agenda for K-12 public education. Now lawmakers seem to be setting their sights on higher education. Last year, the legislature mandated the launch of the NC Guaranteed Admission Program, which would divert a certain percentage of UNC-bound students to community colleges for their first two years of study. NCGAP could alter the college-going experience of many North Carolinians. National publications have published stories that assert Republicans are trying to dismantle North Carolina’s respected university system.
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10. A shifting higher education landscape. Last week, Moody’s rating agency issued a report on the higher education market over the next few years, detailing global economic, technological, and financial challenges for the sector. Complicating the picture are changing demographics, growing demand and innovations in education delivery. These forces are likely to play into Spellings’ strategy.
Born: Nov. 30, 1957, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Houston, 1979; honorary doctorate, University of Houston, 2006
Family: Divorced; two adult daughters
Career: President, George W. Bush Presidential Center, Dallas, 2013-present; president and CEO, Margaret Spellings and Company, Washington, 2009-2013; president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Washington, 2010-2013; U.S. secretary of education, Washington, 2005-2009; domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush, Washington, 2001-2005; senior adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 1995-2000; organizational director, Bush for Governor, 1994; associate executive director, Texas Association of School Boards, 1988-1994; executive director, Governor’s Select Committee on Public Education, 1988; special projects director, Austin Community College, 1986-87; consultant, Republican Party of Texas, 1982, 1984 and 1986; chief committee clerk, Texas House of Representatives, Public Education Committee, 1984; legislative director, Texas House of Representatives, Rep. Bill Hammond, 1983.