Margaret Spellings started her job as UNC system president on Tuesday, as students on six campuses walked out of class to protest.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, several hundred people assembled on the quad at lunchtime as 80 protesters stood on the steps of Wilson Library, leading chants. Demonstrators yelled “Whose university? Our university!” and “We won’t go without a fight. Education is a human right.”
Around the same time, Spellings was doing a radio interview and having lunch with students at N.C. Central University in Durham. She began her day with staff and ended it by meeting with faculty leaders.
She said she wasn’t rattled by the protests in Chapel Hill and at Appalachian State University, N.C. A&T State University, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington.
“It’s just life in public service these days – welcome to the NFL,” Spellings said in an interview. “But I hope that these folks will give me a chance and get to know me, and my work and acts will speak for themselves over time.”
Spellings is a former U.S. secretary of education for President George W. Bush. Students and faculty have raised myriad questions about her background, including her board service for the parent company of for-profit University of Phoenix, as well as her tenure as education secretary during the implementation of the No Child Left Behind federal accountability law.
Spellings said she wants to work on access, affordability and accountability in higher education. Protesters called those “buzz words.” They said No Child Left Behind unfairly punished schools that disproportionately serve poor children, and they warned that an accountability movement will come to higher education in North Carolina.
What about the workers in our dining halls? What about the workers in our housing? What do they make? Nothing. They don’t make $775,000 but they make this system run.
Morgan McLaughlin, a UNC junior from Goldsboro
“She wants that here at UNC. Do we stand for that? No,” said Morgan McLaughlin, a UNC junior from Goldsboro. “It’s racist and classist and it’s got to go, and it does not belong here at UNC.”
They also attacked the UNC Board of Governors for its closure of three academic centers, its lack of transparency, its firing of former president Tom Ross and its hiring of Spellings, who will be paid $775,000.
“I’m just kind of concerned because what about the adjunct professors here and across the UNC system?” McLaughlin said. “What about the workers in our dining halls? What about the workers in our housing? What do they make? Nothing. They don’t make $775,000 but they make this system run.”
Student demonstrators also called into question Spellings’ views on gay issues, after a 2005 controversy in which she denounced public funding for a PBS animated children’s show that depicted gay characters. In October, Spellings said the issue was not on her particular view of “those lifestyles,” but on the use of taxpayer dollars.
On Tuesday, she said she regretted repeating a reporter’s use of the phrase. “I apologize for it,” she said. “But I certainly hope that that term will not define my five-year presidency here at the University of North Carolina.”
The issue prompted UNC’s Faculty Council to pass a resolution last month calling on Spellings to support academic initiatives related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues.
Spellings responded to the council in a letter Monday, also signed by her predecessor, Interim President Junius Gonzales. The letter expressed their intent “to assure support for LGBTQ academic initiatives in a fully equitable and inclusive manner.”
It is unfair to blame her for what happened to me or for the process that selected her. Instead, we must all realize she is now the President of our University of North Carolina – the best public university system in America.
Former UNC system president Tom Ross
“Our institutions thrive because of our commitment to academic freedom and the pursuit of free, unfettered inquiry, and we have a responsibility to provide students with diverse perspectives, academic programs, and campus opportunities that will inform their own values and perspectives as they prepare to lead in our interconnected, global society,” the letter said.
Ross, the former president, also weighed in on Spellings in an opinion piece published on the blog Higher Education Works. He urged North Carolinians to do “everything in our power” to ensure the new president’s success.
“It is unfair to blame her for what happened to me or for the process that selected her. Instead, we must all realize she is now the President of our University of North Carolina – the best public university system in America,” he wrote. “The residents of North Carolina and all of us who love the University must do our part to assist our new president by doing everything necessary and possible to maintain this great treasure that generations of North Carolinians have built.”
When Ross began his presidency five years ago, there were no protests. Spellings may have to continue to confront the questions in the days ahead. Students said they were planning to carpool to Fayetteville later this week for Spellings’ first official meeting with the Board of Governors.
Altha Cravey, a UNC faculty member who has appeared at several anti-Spellings protests, spoke at Tuesday’s rally, criticizing the new president for calling students “customers,” which Cravey said reduces them to commodities.
Cravey looked out over the crowd and said, “I’m glad that we’re giving her a big North Carolina welcome.”