A year ago, when Margaret Spellings arrived from Texas to become president of the UNC system, protesters at the Chapel Hill campus had a welcome rally that wasn’t very welcoming.
Early on, demonstrators yelled outside board meetings and occasionally showed up when she toured the 17 campuses. Now, a year later, Spellings seems to have quieted some of her critics, who feared a move toward “privatization” in higher education and questioned her commitment to LGBTQ issues and her past service on for-profit education boards.
“I think I’ve won some of them over, at least by my wanderings around in the farmers market and around town,” she said in an interview at her office Wednesday on the occasion of her one-year anniversary. “I hope so. I’ve tried hard to dispel some of the myths about me and to work hard to be a great advocate for this wonderful institution. I’ll leave that to others to determine, but it feels comfortable to me now.”
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Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, spent her first year getting to know North Carolina, its people and the public campuses that serve 220,000 students. She is leading one of the state’s most treasured assets, a complex institution with a $9 billion annual budget, at a time when technology and demographics are shifting the higher education landscape.
She also had a major distraction from the get go – HB2, the law that has mired the state in legal and political turmoil and led to boycotts from major athletic tournaments. UNC has been sued over the law that limits local anti-discrimination protections and requires that transgender people use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth.
Spellings said she’d like to see a deal on HB2. “I would hope and would support the legislature restoring our ability to host athletic conferences and the various other things that happened prior to the enactment of House Bill 2,” she said. “As I’ve said many times, we’ve been caught in the middle between federal laws and policies and state laws. We’re good public servants who just want a resolution to this, while maintaining our strong, strong commitment to a very diverse student body that’s frankly very reflective of the population of North Carolina.”
She expects now to turn her attention to implementing the UNC Board of Governors’ newly adopted strategic plan, which aims to increase low-income and rural students, while improving graduation rates and producing more graduates in high-need fields such as health care professions. She’s been seen in the halls of the legislature in recent weeks, shaking hands with lawmakers and occasionally tweeting photos of her meetings with them.
In the past year, the legislature has driven the major changes in public higher education, including the N.C. Promise plan that sets tuition at $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students at three UNC campuses – Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University. Spellings said she supports that plan because it will improve affordability for many North Carolina families. “This is going to be a terrific value for our citizens,” she said, “but also a terrific education.”
While she applauded lawmakers for the action and for the accompanying new funding, legislative involvement has caused angst for others. A systemwide group, the Faculty Assembly, recently contacted the university’s accrediting agency to report “serious concerns about the implications” of legislative and board actions that could undermine and interfere with the authority of the president and campus leaders. The tuition plan was cited, as was the 2015 decision by the board to close three university centers and institutes – an action that many viewed as a threat to academic freedom.
This week, the board will discuss another controversial idea – banning the UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights from filing lawsuits. Spellings was careful not to take a stance on the question Wednesday. “We need to learn more,” she said.
Another thing on the board’s agenda this week: a performance review of the president.