Spellings: At UNC, ‘the best is yet to come’

“I hope you’ll call me Margaret. I bet we have a lot in common.”

That was the introduction I offered in a letter published in this paper when I first arrived as the new UNC System President. And today, as I finish my last day in the office and reflect on the last three years, I’m more convinced than ever that there is more that unites than divides us.

During my time in North Carolina I’ve met thousands of people from every walk of life and had more than a few call me Margaret. The conversations that followed weren’t always easy. I’ve been yelled at, praised, shunned, welcomed, derided, and supported; all reactions that public servants should expect.

But what came next, what emerged from the disagreement, was refreshing. We found common ground and made progress for our state. Together with incredible chancellors, faculty, staff and students at each of the UNC System’s 17 institutions, and in partnership with the University’s Board of Governors and Boards of Trustees, civic and business leaders, and the Legislature, we built Higher Expectations, a strategic plan and an accountability framework that has focused us on what matters the most for our students and our state.

Our graduation rates and research funding hit record highs, enrollments of rural and low-income students soared, achievement gaps are narrowing, and we’re graduating more students in critical workforce fields like nursing, science, and engineering. Under our System’s strategic plan, we’ve exceeded our goals in nearly every metric.

None of this progress was predestined. It happened because people of good faith and good will came together in pursuit of common goals. At a time when politics is arguably uglier than any time in our memory, talented people united in common cause for the good of the state.

It happened because of clear goals; because leaders showed up, talked, argued, and approached conversations with the intention of finding progress. It’s why our University System is so strong.

We’re a state where people have long driven amazing success in education: the first public university in the nation, the first state to create universal kindergarten. Renowned education leaders like Bill Friday, Dick Spangler, and Jim Hunt have carried our education system to great heights.

But people, no matter how well intentioned, skilled, or motivated, cannot live up to their full potential if they are in an institution or system that’s not set up for success. Governance is hard and politics is messy even in the best of scenarios.

So it is incumbent upon us all to ask whether we are organized for success. Are our lines of reporting clear? Are our jurisdictions and incentives and all those boring and technical, but essential details adapted for a complex 21st century political environment?

How we organize and govern ourselves when dealing with issues as important and controversial as education matters.

As I leave as UNC System President, I’m optimistic about the future for this state and its universities. Through work like the myFuture NC Commission, we’re having important debates about how to unite and coordinate the entire educational community. We’re improving in the measurable metrics that matter and North Carolinians believe in the promise of what we offer and what we do.

We’re aiming high and we’re holding ourselves accountable to Higher Expectations. For our students, that means a fairer shot at opportunity and the American Dream. For our towns and cities, it means growth, community, and better jobs for every North Carolinian, not just those with a degree.

As the UNC System enters its next chapter, the trend lines are clear: the best is yet to come. And just how exceptional that future will be is a choice we all get to make.

Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, has served as president of the University of North Carolina system since March 2016. She will step down as president on Tuesday.