Like many UNC faculty, staff and students, I was dismayed to learn that Margaret Spellings would be our next university system president.
My family is fully invested in UNC. My wife and I are professors, two sons have graduated recently from Carolina and a third hopes to attend in the near future.
I viewed Spellings’ appointment as yet another step toward gutting, privatizing, and “corporatizing” our beloved university system.
But allow me to share a hopeful scenario, one that comes from another institution that played an important part in my life: The United States Peace Corps. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration was hostile to the Peace Corps and was in the process of running it into the ground.
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It was absorbed into a larger government agency, starved of resources (it was commonly said that the Peace Corps budget was smaller than that of the combined military bands) and increasingly administered by people whose main qualifications were their political conservatism.
To add injury to insult, at least from the perspective of the Peace Corps community, the administration appointed Loret Miller Ruppe as the Peace Corps director. She was widely perceived as a lightly credentialed political hack with scant relevant experience. The community believed, correctly, that President Reagan had chosen her because he assumed she would be a pushover who would facilitate the gutting of the institution she had been appointed to lead.
But the Reagan administration and the Peace Corps community had misjudged Ruppe. She was not a pushover; she was a lion. She used her connections with the political far right to regain independence for the Peace Corps, retain its strictly nonpartisan nature and expand both its budget and its profile. She left the Peace Corps much better than she found it. She died of cancer in 1996 and the Peace Corps community reveres her as the person most responsible for bringing the institution back to relevance and strength.
I have not met and do not know our new university system president. Based on her record, I have no particular reason to believe that she will resist the fatuously simplistic notions that a great and truly public university is like a for-profit corporation, that our students are the equivalent of customers, and that our success or failure ought to be judged by how much money our graduates earn in their first jobs. But maybe, just maybe, she has some Loret Miller Ruppe in her. I say, let’s give her a bit of time before we make up our minds.
Paul B. Eaton Professor of Law, UNC; Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Niger 1986-88)
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the issue.