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UNC President Margaret Spellings is leaving the university system, sources say

10 questions with UNC president Margaret Spellings

News & Observer education reporter Jane Stancill sits down for 10 questions in 10 minutes with UNC system president Margaret Spellings on the anniversary of her first year on the job.
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News & Observer education reporter Jane Stancill sits down for 10 questions in 10 minutes with UNC system president Margaret Spellings on the anniversary of her first year on the job.

UNC President Margaret Spellings will leave the job, after only three years leading the university system, according to three sources, including one with direct knowledge of the situation.

In recent days, Spellings has quietly negotiated her departure with the UNC Board of Governors. Sources close to Spellings said she wanted to leave the post and return to her home state of Texas. The timing is unclear, but it could be early next year, sources said.

The board will meet Friday in “emergency session to consider an executive personnel matter,” according to a notice sent to the media Thursday afternoon.

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UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board is expected to discuss her departure package during a closed session Friday, October 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

The former U.S. education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, Spellings was hired in 2015 after the UNC Board of Governors forced out the previous president, Tom Ross, a Democrat. The search was mired in controversy and infighting among members of the UNC system’s governing board. Still, Spellings was viewed as big hire for North Carolina — she was a national name with connections and Republican bona fides.

She started in March of 2016 at an annual salary of $775,000 and earned performance bonuses of $90,000 last year and $95,000 this year. Her five-year contract was due to expire in February of 2021.

Spellings’ goals, she has said, were to set the university on a course of affordability, efficiency, accountability and greater access to more low-income and rural students. She wanted better graduation rates and she called education “the new civil right.”

But Spellings had challenges from the beginning. Early on, she was the target of protests from students, but she launched a 17-campus statewide tour and began to win friends. Within two months, though, Spellings was handed a difficult political issue after the university was sued over HB2, the law that required transgender people to use public facilities that matched their gender at birth.

The so-called bathroom bill was just the first hurdle for Spellings, who eventually found herself reporting to a board that had turned over, with few remaining members who had been involved in her hiring.

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UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board is expected to discuss her departure package during a closed session Friday, October 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Political controversies seemed to take center stage despite Spellings’ often stated desire to focus on her strategic goals. The board voted to bar a civil rights center at the UNC law school from engaging in litigation, essentially ending the center’s advocacy work.

Then came the battle over Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill. Last year, a majority of the board signed a letter that took Spellings and former board chair Lou Bissette to task for their communication with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Spellings, Bissette and UNC-CH leaders had written to Cooper after the violence in Charlottesville, asking him for help with security around the statue and requesting that he convene the state historical commission to decide the fate of the statue. UNC board members, in their letter, wrote that it was “wholly unacceptable” for Spellings and the others to communicate with the governor on the issue without seeking broader board input.

The statue was toppled by protesters in August, presenting another round of challenges to Spellings and Carol Folt, the chancellor at the Chapel Hill campus.

The Board of Governors seemed to split into factions, with some members supporting Spellings enthusiastically and others questioning her and her administration. The chasm was striking on a legislatively-appointed board that is overwhelmingly Republican.

A year ago, a majority of the board proposed a host of changes in the university system, including lowering tuition and fees at the campuses, reorganizing Spellings’ staff and possibly moving the UNC system office out of Chapel Hill. Some board members saw this as meddling in the president’s ability to manage the operation; others insisted reforms were needed.

In the end no radical changes were implemented but the board appointed committees to study the issues. At the time, Spellings downplayed the intervention.

“This group has some policy priorities of their own,” she told The News & Observer last September. “They’ve made that clear. It’s our job, as they are our elected governing body, to accommodate to the extent we can, their requests. But it’s also incumbent upon us for the good of North Carolina to major in the majors, and work the strategic plan that they’ve adopted, that speak to affordability and efficiency and accountability and student success.”

This summer marked a changing of the board’s leadership. Bissette, a staunch supporter of Spellings, stepped down as chairman when his term ended. The new leader, Harry Smith, had been aligned with the more activist-minded members of the board that challenged Spellings on Silent Sam.

But Smith went out of his way earlier this year to publicly state his support for the president. In July, he urged the board to get behind Spellings, who he called “a phenomenal leader.”

“If Margaret has a position that this board does not support, it’s my hope we respect it,” he said, as reported at the time in The N&O. “She brings a great experience, knowledge, and it’s my hope we recognize that.”

The same month, the board’s internal strife was on display with the breakdown of the search for a new chancellor for Western Carolina University. The board declined to vote on a candidate put forward after one board member, Tom Fetzer, said he had evidence the candidate had misrepresented information in his background.

Spellings will leave at a time when the progress on her goals is partially fulfilled. She had signed performance agreements with the campuses that spelled out metrics on goals, including better graduation rates, more low-income and rural students and economic impact on North Carolina. Tuition for North Carolina undergraduates has been mostly flat, or reduced, thanks to a legislative-backed N.C. Promise tuition reduction at three campuses — Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

In the coming months, a group called My Future NC Commission, is expected to release its goals for statewide higher education degree attainment among North Carolinians. The group was conceived and formed by Spellings.

Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill
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