Next UNC president faces faculty skepticism

Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on June 24, 2015. Spellings is expected to be named president of the UNC system.
Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on June 24, 2015. Spellings is expected to be named president of the UNC system. AP

Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary whose career has been closely tied to former President George W. Bush, is widely expected to be named the next UNC system president on Friday.

Spellings was the leading contender of the presidential search committee and met privately last week with the UNC Board of Governors. Although the board also reviewed the qualifications of several other candidates, Spellings was the only one to appear before the full board.

On Thursday, the board’s personnel and tenure committee gathered to review a salary package and contract provisions for the next leader, who will succeed Tom Ross as president.

Ross, 65, is due to step down in early January, a year after the board pushed him out in what critics called a politically motivated decision. He is a Democrat.

The presidential search process has been anything but smooth, although board members have heaped praise on the leading contender, characterizing Spellings as a “dream candidate,” a promising pick with a national name, political chops and a reputation as a reformer.

Lawmakers and others have complained about the secrecy of the search, and on Thursday, faculty leaders said they were ignored during the process. They warned that the next leader already faces a trust deficit.

“The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of the new President to the well-being of the University,” said a statement from the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly. “But he or she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and his or her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when s/he was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community.”

The statement was signed by Stephen Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and chair of the assembly, and Gabriel Lugo, UNC Wilmington professor and chair-elect of the group.

Others were more strident. A petition had been started by a group called Faculty Forward, and a Facebook page called “Contact your UNC BOG” featured the phrases “No to Spellings! No to secrecy!” in red letters.

The search has fueled tension and contentious relationships on the 32-member governing board that oversees the 17-campus system.

Board members not on the search committee have complained about being excluded, and several have called for board Chairman John Fennebresque to step aside. The legislature also took the rare step of forcing parameters on the search, with a bill that required the search committee to submit three finalists’ names to the full board for consideration. That bill has not been signed into law yet by Gov. Pat McCrory; legislative leaders sent a letter to the board last week, reminding them of the bill. The board responded with promises to follow it.

Faculty leaders had asked repeatedly to meet with finalists, and faculty representatives have shown up outside closed-door search committee meetings for months. Joan MacNeill, chair of the search committee, had promised Faculty Assembly leaders that she would pass along their request to the finalists. But no meeting happened.

One candidate – presumably Spellings – met with McCrory at the governor’s mansion last week in what was described by a spokesman as “a wonderful conversation.”

The Faculty Assembly statement said the failure by the board to seek the advice of faculty and staff “is both shortsighted and troubling.”

It further said the faculty have “faithfully advised” the board on issues such as admissions, tuition, financial aid, leadership appointment processes, curricular design, freedom of inquiry and peer review. “Yet the Board has repeatedly refused to acknowledge – let alone discuss – points of counsel they have been offered,” the statement said. “Instead, they have frequently promulgated ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state.”

The firing of Ross, the professors said, was “the most egregious in a long train of problematic governance actions” that have “brought the future of the University into doubt.”

Such complaints by faculty have been lodged recently at other university governing boards around the country. This week, hundreds of protesters stormed into an Iowa Board of Regents meeting, shouting “Resign!” after the naming of businessman Bruce Harreld as president. And in an unusual show of solidarity, faculty bodies at eight of the Big Ten universities have joined to endorse the Iowa faculty’s recent “no confidence” vote.

With faculty opinions strongly opposed to the board’s actions in recent months, the next UNC president is likely to have to build bridges.

Spellings, a veteran of Texas and Washington politics, was education secretary from 2005 to 2009 and previously was Bush’s domestic policy adviser and his education adviser when he was governor of Texas. She was reared and educated in Texas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Houston. The lack of a graduate degree could be fuel for faculty critics, but Spellings has an abundance of experience in policy and politics. She is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

Known as plain-spoken and unafraid to shake up the status quo, Spellings was a major driver of the No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to hold public schools accountable for better student achievement and a reduction in the minority learning gap. The law, which has largely been abandoned, was criticized as unworkable and responsible for a new era of high-stakes testing, but there is evidence student performance improved with the accountability movement.

Spellings also formed a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which looked at issues of access, affordability, quality and accountability in the nation’s colleges and universities. It issued a report and recommendations in 2006.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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