Baggage-toting Spellings the antithesis of able UNC leaders

Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings AFP/Getty Images

On the second day of her job as secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration in 2004, Margaret Spellings sent a letter to the CEO of PBS demanding that a children’s show that featured a lesbian couple be pulled from the air. Two weeks later, PBS’s CEO stepped down.

Spellings went to Washington as a former lobbyist-turned-political director to Bush during his first gubernatorial campaign in which he defeated incumbent Texas Gov. Ann Richards by using coded L-word, dogwhistle language as the linchpin in a campaign strategy devised by Karl Rove – who introduced Spellings to Bush.

Fast forward a decade, and politics and education have intersected in a nasty way in the Tar Heel state. Spellings has surfaced as the frontrunner to succeed Tom Ross as the president of the UNC system in the aftermath of Ross’ partisan sacking by a Republican-dominated, myopic, secretive and feckless Board of Governors. Ross – as good a man as God has ever made – was guilty of no more than being a registered Democrat and former head of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation whose philanthropy has been an obsessive thorn in the side of Art Pope Inc’s. dogma for decades.

Former UNC system President Erskine Bowles, a two-time Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and Clinton White House chief of staff, came to office as a centrist politician, a man of great wealth and privilege who was part of the establishment business-political class in North Carolina. Bowles’ predecessor – Charlotte billionaire C.D. Spangler – was a Republican who had never run for political office yet has been one of the nation’s top donors to the Republican Party.

Notably, both Bowles and Spangler served as UNC system president during periods when a Democratic governor and General Assembly appointed a Democratic-dominated Board of Governors. Yet neither Spangler nor Bowles, in spite of their partisan affiliations, had any of the political baggage of the sort that Spellings would tote to North Carolina from Texas.

As the leading candidate to succeed a man of unimpeachable integrity and grace, Spellings profiles as a career political operative, lobbyist, Rove protégée and cultural warrior, the antithesis of recent leaders both Democratic and Republican who have ably led the foremost statewide university system in the nation. While Republican legislators and their appointees to the UNC Board of Governors and Gov. Pat McCrory fight among themselves, Ross remains the adult in the sand box, the stand-up guy whose singular focus has been to protect the interest of our state’s most precious asset at a time of instability, uncertainty and unrest.

I do not like the politics of any of this one iota. I would say the same were Spellings a Democratic frontrunner who presented a past tainted by charged political and cultural divisiveness. It is an open secret that politics is the only factor driving the selection process. And mixing politics with education is once-removed from mixing politics and religion, and we well know the dangers of walking down that path.

Jim Neal of Raleigh has been an advocate, lecturer and adviser to nonprofits for educational equality. He was a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2008.