J. Peder Zane

Spellings perfectly suited to build on UNC strengths

Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings AFP/Getty Images

Here’s one thing Margaret Spellings can count on when she becomes president of the University of North Carolina system in March: job security.

Following the high-minded hand-wringing of liberals incensed that the GOP forced Tom Ross from that post for political reasons, there’s no way Democrats would do the same to Spellings if they took control of state government in 2016. Right?

Come on, that’s funny.

Before suggesting why Spellings is an excellent pick, a few words on the selection process: It was terrible. One of the most important jobs in North Carolina should not be filled in secret. The Board of Governors should have involved all the stakeholders – faculty, students and residents – in the process.

The BOG, however, does not shoulder all of the blame for this lack of transparency. In our poisonously partisan times, an open-ended process invites smear campaigns and distractions. In this case, it is possible that the Spellings nomination could have been derailed by the letter she wrote to PBS in 2005 complaining about a program featuring a lesbian couple. She should not have written it – and Hillary Clinton and President Obama should not have opposed same-sex marriage in 2008. But she is not a homophobe who will seek to muzzle the LGBTQ community. As long as our politics are defined by phony controversies and apology tours, our leaders will, unfortunately, seek shelter in the shadows.

Critics complain that Spellings lacks an advanced degree – she earned a BA in political science from the University of Houston. They forget that two of the most revered educational leaders in North Carolina history – former UNC President Bill Friday and Duke President Terry Sanford – were lawyers, not scholars. Others have disparaged her as a “political hack,” even as they praise Sanford and former UNC-Chapel Hill President Frank Porter Graham, who were stalwarts of the Democratic Party.

Just as Ronald Reagan quipped that it would be hard to be president if you weren’t an actor, it would be almost impossible to run the UNC system without deep political contacts and skills.

It must also be said that previous leadership, over many decades, has given us one of the worst academic-athletic scandals in the history of American higher education. An outsider may be exactly what’s needed.

Spellings seems perfectly suited to build upon the UNC system’s many strengths and transform it where necessary. She comes to the job with more experience grappling with the challenges facing education, and a greater record of innovation, than any of her storied predecessors. In fact, it’s not even close.

As secretary of education under George W. Bush, she helped pass and implement one of the most sweeping reforms in the history of American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Embodying a commitment to provide every student with a solid education, it aimed to measure academic achievement across the country while demanding new levels of accountability. Spellings also worked to free poor children trapped in underperforming schools as a pioneering advocate of vouchers and charter schools.

As secretary, Spellings also led the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which recommended ways to make universities more accountable and affordable, while urging them to better prepare students for the 21st century workplace. It is telling that the Obama administration has embraced many of these approaches, especially the need for measurable accountability concerning student and school performance.

In fairness, her efforts have not turned around American education. Spellings has asked the right questions, but the answers remain elusive. Testing and other metrics, for example, are diagnostic tools, not solutions. It is becoming clear that the core issues she addressed – achievement gaps between rich and poor and rising costs – are beyond the scope of purely educational reforms. They are symptoms of far broader cultural and economic challenges.

Remember that when politicians tout their plans to fix education.

The good news is that Spellings is moving to a much smaller, more manageable job. Instead of America, she has the momentous task of improving only UNC’s 17 campuses.

We do not know what steps she will take. But her record shows she will pursue them with tremendous energy, political skills and a commitment to fact-based innovation.

All North Carolinians should come together in the hope that one day she will be mentioned in the same breath as Graham, Sanford and Friday.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.