Let’s welcome President Spellings, our new university system president, and Margaret, our new neighbor in Chapel Hill.
This neighbor thing is important to every mission. A single parent whose children are grown, she arrives with very few local connections. It’s not just her job that’s tough. Public figures are challenged in making new friends with no agenda. Let’s let her know that, in our neighborhood, she’s a welcome new neighbor. That’s who we are.
She has moved into the biggest house on the hill with the biggest job, the most important and the toughest in our state’s public life. North Carolina today is different and better from the rest of the South because our university is those things. She’s now its chief steward.
She must shepherd UNC through times of galloping change, through a tsunami of new technologies, the anger of old grudges and the ideology of inexperienced board governance that has yet to find its way.
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Her unabashedly Republican leadership puts her politics out of sync in our village where 83 percent of registered voters are Democrat or independent. It is, though, likely aligned with the state’s voter majority.
Protesters have called for her to be fired before she takes her job today. Yet there is a universal truth that past performance and promises are unreliable predictors of what emerges when an applicant is the incumbent.
Passionate student demonstrators are well-intentioned in their protests. At this point, they are misguided.
It was distressing to hear their student leader declare on WCHL that it doesn’t matter what she does in the job. “She will never be comfortable,” she promised. “We will always ask for her dismissal. And that’s that.” That wince-worthy promise stirred comparisons to Mitch McConnell before President Obama had ever signed in.
Students come here to learn. Someday, this young lady will learn that there are better ways. The day may come when civil disobedience is appropriate. Not yet.
Unless our new president shows herself to be intractably intransigent in refusal to embrace the rights and to understand the sensibilities of those she calls her customers, let’s help her understand even as we cheer her success.
The governors of UNC were egregiously awful in the way they managed the transition they instigated. Some of the board’s most prominent members, embarrassed by the experience, say they understand that now. They are still learning governance. Spellings, meanwhile, is not responsible for the sins of the fathers who hired her.
For now, she and we should live the values of Southern manners. The president’s big yellow house has wide front porches for howdies and a back porch perfect for sweet tea and good conversation. It’s a place for visiting, for finding common ground. It’s a good place for explaining and persuading, pondering, listening and learning.
Our chances of getting the best come from expecting the best. That does not include a mindset to lie back, wait and see what she’s got. In some ways, that’s deadlier than outright opposition.
She is smart and has a reputation for outworking everyone around her and doing so with a sense of humor. We are more likely to advance agreement if we pursue it while finding joy in our common humanity and frailty.
This place is about learning. She has said that her first job will be to go to all the schools, to visit with the people of the state, to listen and learn.
If we are true to the roots we claim, we, too, will be liberal in pursuit of new ideas. If the university functions at its best, our philosophies and policies are best derived from research and reason.
In Texas, the big jobs in education and public service go to Republicans. They say out there, just as here, the lady didn’t just fall off a turnip truck. She found success where there was opportunity for advancement. Now, her bread is buttered here. And for sure, there’s no way this board will ever chase its choice away. So, she has a lot of latitude to do things her way. Let’s help her find it.
What’s the prescription, dear Tar Heels? Bake a pie, take a casserole. Pursue trust. And Margaret – may we call you Margaret? – we welcome you. We welcome your ideas and know you’ll listen to ours.
You do need to get one thing straight, though, here and now. Our real barbecue is vastly superior to that stuff you slather over beef out there in wild and wooly Texas. Indefensible.
Let’s show you at Crooks. That will be a public demonstration to celebrate.
Jim Heavner, ’61, is president of VilCom, a Chapel Hill media company.