Margaret Spellings’ resume as a former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush caused some who were angered by the firing of University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross to question whether Spellings was a partisan choice by an overwhelmingly Republican UNC Board of Governors.
Spellings took some of that personally, and understandably so. The truth was, some who opposed the Ross firing – unjustified and clumsy and itself utterly partisan – still spoke of Spellings behind the scenes as a competent and compassionate person capable of running the university system. Unanswered, though, were fears that Spellings might come in with Republican lawmakers urging her to clean house of all liberals, particularly on the Chapel Hill campus, and tilt the system’s educational balance to the right while focusing solely on practical job skills and not the liberal arts and humanities.
Those were a lot of assumptions. Spellings should have given some ease to those who have criticized her publicly and privately with her refreshing address to Board of Governors members on a retreat last week in Greensboro.
Spellings characterized education as a new civil right and strongly hit the point that the UNC system must look to educate more people: “In the global knowledge economy, we are required to help more people, particularly people of color and those from first generation and low-income backgrounds to achieve at much higher levels. We’ve not done this in the past, and we continue to fall short now.”
The president-elect said, “Historically in our country, we’ve done a pretty good job of educating elites, and we still do.” But she said that was not to be “the only game in town.”
Spellings even invoked the words of Bill Friday, the founding president of the UNC system and one of the most beloved and respected North Carolinians of the 20th century, who had once described the university system as a mighty engine.
Spellings responded to her critics by saying, “When you get to know me, you’ll see that I am driven to provide education and opportunity for all.”
She also seemed to make it clear that, when she takes office March 1, she is going to take charge and be the voice of the UNC system, which may be a signal to BOG members to oversee but not expect to interfere in day-to-day management.
Again, that’s a good theme.
Over the next weeks, Spellings plans to visit all 17 campuses. It’s hard to learn much on those types of visits, but they will give chancellors and faculty and students a chance to see and speak with the new president, if even a little. The comfort level will increase in time.
Spellings has skillfully introduced herself to the people of North Carolina, who have long valued their university. It is not easy to take a job like hers after all the tumult that surrounded what happened to her predecessor. But Spellings seems up to that challenge, which will be only the first of many.