Margaret Spellings chose carefully when the hip-hop artists at UNC-Chapel Hill asked her to utter a word into the microphone for a little musical experimentation: “Opportunity.”
Before a small crowd in a campus startup incubator Tuesday, her word was being mixed, manipulated and blasted to a rap beat. And then the new UNC president scratched out a rhythm on the turntable.
Spellings spent Tuesday with faculty, students and administrators at the flagship university in Chapel Hill – the latest campus tour in her statewide sprint to get to know the 17-campus system she has led since the beginning of March. On Wednesday she’ll meet UNC’s two Nobel Prize winners, and on Thursday, she’ll head to N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. She’s already been to four other campuses, blogging and tweeting about what she is learning along the way.
Her visit to the UNC campus, just down the street from her new home, began with separate lunches with students and faculty. Outside, protesters held signs and yelled chants in what has become a familiar scene in Chapel Hill. Spellings has faced opposition from some quarters from the moment she arrived in the state. They have focused on her term as U.S. education secretary under Republican George W. Bush, her ties to the No Child Left Behind law and her board service related to for-profit universities and student debt collectors.
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In a brief session with reporters Tuesday, she reiterated her message to protesters: “Give me a chance.”
She’s already talking about the need to increase faculty and staff salaries after several years of stagnant pay. “We’re really at a tipping point to remain competitive in this country, and we need to invest in great people,” she said.
When a student reporter asked if she would support in-state tuition for immigrants who are in the country illegally, she brought up her experience in Texas.
“I come from a state that that’s been a longstanding policy of the state,” she said. “Obviously, the Board of Governors need to weigh in on this, but I’ve seen it be successful in Texas, in a state with many, many, many miles of border. That’s just my history.”
But she was careful to add that she doesn’t have the facts about the issue in North Carolina and isn’t ready to get ahead of policymakers by endorsing it.
Spellings has several times referred to the university as a “mighty engine” of the economy. She saw a glimpse of that Tuesday afternoon at the 1789 Venture Lab, a small space in downtown Chapel Hill where students and faculty are trying to turn ideas into products and businesses. She learned about 3D printers and artificial limbs, honeybee survival and cancer drugs.
Three UNC students and former athletes showed off their prototype, Cool Soles, a shoe insert that prevents players’ feet from overheating on turf fields. One of them, Christopher Donaldson, a senior from Raleigh, said he liked seeing the new president interact with students.
“It’s especially nice to hear her say how open she is about everything, coming into the new job and being willing to hear from all the different schools and kind of get a feel for what it’s like at the different places,” Donaldson said.
The hip-hop project, called Next Level, is a partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs to foster cross-cultural exchange around the world.
Mark Katz, music professor, made a pitch to Spellings to convey to policymakers and others that innovation isn’t just limited to STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was perhaps a subtle message at a time when some North Carolina politicians have made disparaging remarks about academic majors that don’t lead to jobs.
“We need you as our representative to the public ... to spread that message that the arts and humanities can be a really important force for the public good,” said Katz, who is also director of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
Spellings said she hopes to tell the legislature soon about what she’s seen, “how we need to invest in and cherish these institutions, our faculty, the people who are innovating, and especially of course, our students.”