Rob Christensen

Christensen: Spellings joins diverse club as UNC president

Margaret Spellings' remarks after being chosen as next UNC system president

Margaret Spellings makes her opening remarks to the UNC Board of Governors after being selected as the new UNC system president.
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Margaret Spellings makes her opening remarks to the UNC Board of Governors after being selected as the new UNC system president.

With the election of Margaret Spellings last week as the new University of North Carolina president, there has been some chatter about whether her qualifications and background are up to snuff.

But if you look at the backgrounds of past UNC presidents, you will find they are diverse lot – businessmen and college administrators, liberals and conservatives. None have had a Ph.D. Several have been deeply involved in politics. Few had any classroom teaching experience.

When the UNC Board of Governors or their predecessors have searched for a new president, they have not looked for one particular model.

Undoubtedly some of the skepticism about Spellings is political. Much of the left feels about George W. Bush about the way the right feels about Barack Obama. Anybody closely associated with either man is immediately suspect by those who hold opposing views.

Spellings’ career has been closely bound to that of Bush, working as a campaign worker and education adviser in Texas for Bush, and later as chief domestic adviser and education secretary for him in Washington.

Having attended the University of Houston, she will be the first UNC president with just an undergraduate degree. But she will also be the first former Cabinet member to hold the post.

Here is a look at UNC presidents since the system was consolidated.

Frank Porter Graham (1930-1949) is probably the most famous UNC president and most closely fits people’s perceptions of UNC. He was a liberal voice pushing the South to be fairer to its black citizens, arguing for academic freedom, and pushing for the right of working people to organize. Dr. Frank, as he was widely known, did not hold a doctorate. He held an undergraduate degree and law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and a masters degree in history from Columbia University and worked on a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and did further studies at the London School of Economics, but never completed a thesis to earn a Ph.D. He was a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. As UNC president, he was appointed to high-level tasks by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, such as helping negotiate the independence of Indonesia. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1949, but lost in 1950 in a Democratic primary famous for its race- and red-baiting.

He was succeeded by a conservative, Gordon Gray (1950-1955), who was publisher of the Winston-Salem Journal. He was a member of a prominent family – his father was chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and his grandfather co-founded Wachovia bank. He had an undergraduate degree from UNC, and a law degree from Yale. Gray, who served three terms in the state House, was appointed by Truman as assistant secretary of the Army, and two years later became secretary. As UNC president in 1954, he shocked many when he said in a speech: “If I had to make a choice between a complete system of publicly supported higher education or a complete system of private higher education, I would choose the latter as a greater safeguard of the things for which we live.” Also while UNC president, he served as head of a three-member committee that controversially recommended the removal of nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance. He left the UNC presidency to become Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and then later the president’s national security adviser.

Gray’s assistant, Bill Friday (1956-1986), became the third UNC system president. Friday was a Democrat, but unlike his mentor, Graham, he kept politics to himself, wanting to protect the integrity of the university. He had a textile degree from N.C. State and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. In the post-World War II era, Friday is the president most associated with UNC.

He was succeeded by C.D. “Dick” Spangler (1986-1997), a billionaire businessman from Charlotte. Spangler had an undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MBA from Harvard. Before becoming UNC president he had been chairman of the State Board of Education. After retiring from the UNC presidency, he became president of the Harvard University Board of Overseers. He held a political fundraiser in his home for Republican President George W. Bush.

Molly Broad (1997-2006) was a professional educator. She had an undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and a masters in economics from Ohio State University. If she had any politics, she kept that to herself.

She was vice president for government and corporate relations at Syracuse, director of the New York State Commission on the Future of Postsecondary Education, chief executive officer of the Arizona University System, and executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer for the California State University System. Since UNC, she has been president of the American Council on Education.

Erskine Bowles (2005-2010) is a Charlotte investment banker who came to the job through politics. He received his undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MBA from Columbia. He was head of the Small Business Administration and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton. He twice was the Democratic nominee for the Senate. He comes from a prominent family – his father was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1972 and led the fundraising efforts to build the Dean Dome. Since his UNC presidency, Bowles co-chaired a national panel that recommended changes to reduce the deficit.

Tom Ross (2011-present) has an undergraduate degree from Davidson and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He was chief of staff to Democratic Congressman Robin Britt, a Superior Court judge for 17 years, was director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, was executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, and was president of Davidson when he took the UNC post.

So Spellings is not breaking the mold. There is no mold.

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