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Just as she leaves the UNC presidency, Spellings already has a new job in Texas

Margaret Spellings on her time as President of the UNC system

Margaret Spellings is leaving her post in the spring of 2019. Spellings spoke with The News & Observer on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 about her experience leading the UNC system.
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Margaret Spellings is leaving her post in the spring of 2019. Spellings spoke with The News & Observer on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 about her experience leading the UNC system.

Margaret Spellings, who recently stepped down as the UNC system president, is working for a Texas public policy group devising a strategy for the state’s future.

Spellings is a consultant to Texas 2036, a nonprofit organization focused on key areas such as education, health care, infrastructure, the environment, government and public safety. The effort is aimed at strengthening the Lone Star State and persuading the public, and lawmakers, to pay attention to the long range view.

The group’s name is taken from the year of Texas’ bicentennial, and the organization has amassed about 300 data sets to begin to look at the state’s current and future horizons.

“I’m really excited about it,” Spellings said in an interview Tuesday from Chapel Hill, where she’s packing up her belongings at the president’s home on Franklin Street. She plans one last weekend at her place at Bald Head Island before moving to Dallas next week.

Spellings said the broad planning effort allows her to get back to the kind of work she did as domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush. She later served as Bush’s education secretary.

Though the effort is broad in scope, education is a key element, she said. “The coin of the realm in Texas and everywhere else is how well we educate our people,” she said. “Whoever wins that wins the race.”

The group was founded by Tom Luce, a Dallas lawyer who worked closely with former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Luce said the goal is to work on problems that are large systemic issues.

“In the real world, you don’t change those systems overnight, and it takes a long-term plan, and it takes developing the coalitions for that plan,” Luce said. “Margaret is the perfect person to lead that effort. She’s got the policy experience, the bipartisan background to be able to do that, and I think we’re just very fortunate that we were able to persuade her to, what I call, come home.”

Luce said he hoped she would become the permanent leader of Texas 2036.

Texas has five of the largest 15 U.S. cities and an economy bigger than Australia or South Korea. One of the state’s largest industries, oil and gas drilling, is likely to be in decline in the coming years.

The goal of the broad planning exercise, Spellings said, is “to put together the sensible center and the business community to rally around these core issues.”

Spellings announced last fall that she would step down March 1 as president of the 17-campus UNC system, three years into a five-year contract. The resignation came as a shock, but Spellings had at times been stymied by a UNC Board of Governors that challenged her managerial authority. She had also faced distracting political issues, such as the state’s bathroom bill known as HB2 and the battle over the Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Texas initiative is not unlike Spellings’ effort here to build a strategy for public higher education, focusing on affordability, accountability, efficiency, transparency, student success and data-driven decisions.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re thinking long term,” she said of Texas 2036.

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.

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