Though Margaret Spellings doesn’t begin her tenure as the next president of the University of North Carolina system until March 1, she is already making decisions that give us a taste of things to come. And it’s a very bitter taste indeed.
There are many problems with Spellings’ appointment, not least of which was the Board of Governors’ shamefully secretive hiring process. But the core problem is that Spellings subscribes to a very troubling ideology, which holds that education is essentially a private and not a public good. Far from increasing efficiency, this belief risks transforming our state’s outstanding public university system into a second-tier institution, run by a handful of unaccountable millionaires with little regard for our citizens’ needs.
Consider Spellings’ recent decision to commission a report on the UNC General Administration, which runs the 17-campus system, from the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm. According to a recent News & Observer story, BCG will “assess the operation against legislative mandates and strategic priorities for the state’s public university system” by interviewing “more than 100 people, including UNC Board of Governors members, chancellors, financial officers, faculty leaders, student leaders and legislators.”
While reviewing the UNC General Administration’s efficiency might sound reasonable – universities are, after all, plagued by administrative bloat – Spellings’ decision to hire BCG should raise eyebrows across the state.
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First, the way BCG has been hired encourages unaccountable behavior and makes it doubtful that its recommendations will be made in our citizens’ best interest. The $1.1 million study is “privately funded” by an “anonymous donor” through the UNC Foundation, the N&O story said.
Can a for-profit firm paid for by an “anonymous donor” really be accountable to the public? Spellings’ decision is yet another example of how the state’s current leadership blurs the lines between public service and private profiteering.
The wealthy’s agenda
This is not the first time that wealthy individuals have used BCG to force their educational agenda onto the public. In 2012, BCG was paid $1.4 million for a study of the Philadelphia public school system, titled “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools.” It subsequently received another contract worth $1.2 million. These funds, too, came partly from “anonymous donors” channeled through the William Penn Foundation and United Way. As a result, a plan of considerable public significance was contracted with minimal public scrutiny.
The subcontracting of education policy to a private, for-profit company is all the more troubling because BCG is hardly politically neutral. BCG embraces a highly partisan conception of education, one that is consistent with the views of Spellings, George W. Bush’s former education secretary. Specifically, BCG’s Philadelphia plan selected as many as 60 schools for possible closure, aggressively promoted charter schools, identified private companies that could replace the district’s unionized labor force and tied school success to inflexible “achievement goals.”
A shadowy donor
While claiming that she has merely hired a neutral management consulting firm, Spellings is relying on a shadowy donor to hire a firm that will advocate steps to dismantle public education. BCG’s record is fully consistent with the views Spellings championed as education secretary and also with the destructive policies our Republican legislature has inflicted on the state school system. Thanks to those efforts, North Carolina now pays teachers abysmally, discourages teachers from seeking advanced degrees and diverts significant resources toward charter schools, which, according to a recent report by the Department of Public Instruction, serve a wealthier and whiter student population than public schools.
In short, if you like what our legislature has done to our school system, you’ll love – if the contract she offered BCG is any indication – what Spellings will do to UNC.
Yet again, Spellings has made it clear that she plans to end UNC as we know it. If UNC is to serve all our state’s residents and not just a few wealthy individuals who want to call all the shots, North Carolinians must write and call our Board of Governors and elected officials and tell them to terminate Spellings’ appointment.
Dr. Michael C. Behrent of Appalachian State University and Dr. Altha Cravey of UNC-Chapel Hill are members of Faculty Forward, which works “to right the disparities that have lowered the bar in higher education.”