‘It was the right time for me.’ UNC President Margaret Spellings will leave March 1.

UNC President Margaret Spellings will step down March 1, on her third anniversary of leading the 17-campus university system.

The announcement was made Friday, after the UNC Board of Governors met in closed session for two hours to discuss the departure package for Spellings.

“All leaders are for a time,” Spellings told reporters just after noon Friday. She later added, “Times change, and those times demand new leaders and new approaches.”

Spellings said she would explore other opportunities in public service and probably return to Texas. She will leave the position well before her five-year contract expires.

The terms of her compensation agreement include regular pay and a $77,500 retirement contribution through March 1, plus a $500,000 separation payment and $35,000 in moving expenses. Spellings will also be able to serve on an outside board of directors beginning Jan. 1, according to the terms.

Board Chairman Harry Smith said the president and board reached a mutual agreement that it was time to transition to a new leader. Spellings said that it was she who began the discussion with Smith a few weeks ago.

“These are personal decisions,” Spellings said. “These are tough jobs, demanding jobs. Three years is a good run. I’m proud of the accomplishments that have occurred in that period of time. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together and it’s just the right time for me.”

Smith thanked Spellings for her service and commitment, and setting the university on a path of “much-needed reforms.”

“Under Margaret’s strong and capable leadership, we worked together to achieve a lot of great things, for keeping things affordable, for making our institutions accountable, and we’re getting the fact, data and detail we need to be world class,” Smith said.

Smith said an interim president will be named, and the board is in no rush to begin a search for a permanent leader.

Spellings led the university system through a tumultuous period that included the controversy over the HB2 bathroom bill and the uproar over Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill. She has served under a contentious board that broke into factions, with some members more supportive of Spellings than others.

A former U.S. education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, Spellings has pushed the university campuses to be more affordable, efficient and accountable. A strategic plan she crafted with the board focused raising graduation rates and opening doors more widely for rural and low-income students.

Two weeks ago, Spellings was asked by a reporter about earlier rumors that she had been a contender for the University of Texas system chancellor’s job. The position went to J.B Milliken, a former UNC system administrator and former chancellor of City University of New York.

Spellings was dismissive of that rumor. Of Milliken, she said, “I congratulate him, I’m proud of him, but I’ve got a big job here.”

When asked if she would stay in the UNC job for a while, she replied: “Absolutely.”

On Friday, Spellings said she was proud the university system saw two years with no tuition hikes, defying national trends.

“I’m proud to have carried the torch during a period of reform and progress,” she said.

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Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill
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