Margaret Spellings has gotten off on the wrong foot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Before being named the first Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke, Tom Ross, former president of the University of North Carolina system, was widely praised for his performance in office, but his successor—Spellings—currently faces a divided and rancorous reception even before her first official day on the job March 1.
After the UNC Board of Governors asked for and received the resignation of Ross—which was announced during a press conference Jan. 16, 2015—a search process was launched in order to find his replacement. The board’s appointment of Spellings—who previously served as secretary of education under President George W. Bush—has been criticized by organizations like the Faculty Forward Network and student groups like the Campus Y.
‘A long track record of intolerance’
Spellings’ opponents cite her corporate background and contentious record on issues of inclusivity as reasons the board should reverse their appointment decision. At a Board of Governors meeting last Tuesday, four individuals were arrested during a protest organized by the Faculty Forward Network.
“[Spellings] has a long track record of intolerance but also of being a kind of culture warrior within public policy arenas, so she has these clear conflicts of interests,” said Altha Cravey, associate professor of geography at UNC and a member of the Faculty Forward Network.
Before her tenure as secretary of education, Spellings served as a domestic policy adviser at the White House. Spellings’ professional experience also consists of extensive involvement in the private sector. She joined the board of directors for Apollo Education Group Inc.—the parent company of the University of Phoenix—in 2012 and served as senior advisor to the Boston Consulting Group until 2013. Spellings’ professional background ultimately proved appealing to the search committee when looking for Ross’ replacement out of a field of more than 200 candidates.
“One of the things the board was very interested in having was someone who had run a very complex organization,” said Lou Bissette, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. “The other thing that we liked about Margaret is that she had been involved in education throughout her career, even when she was still at Texas [serving as senior advisor to then-Governor George W. Bush] before she went to Washington with President Bush, so her background was extensive in education.”
Despite the board’s positive view of Spellings, many opponents are troubled by her record on inclusivity. The Campus Y—a student group from UNC Chapel Hill—has criticized Spellings’ record on LGBTQ and minority rights, calling for the reversal of her appointment on its Facebook page.
In a 2005 letter to Pat Mitchell, who was president and CEO of PBS at the time, Spellings—who was then serving as secretary of education—expressed concern about the content of an episode of “Postcards from Buster,” which portrayed two lesbian couples. She questioned whether parents would want their children exposed to what she characterized as a “lifestyle.” In a press conference last year, when asked about the letter, Spellings used the term again to describe homosexuality. Still, Spellings and her supporters say that she does not promote any form of discrimination.
“I’ve had a number of letters from individuals from the gay and lesbian community who say that Margaret is a wonderful person and that she doesn’t have a discriminatory bone in her body,” Bissette said.
The corporatization of higher education
Faculty Forward also maintained opposition for what it views as efforts to foster the corporatization of higher education. A fact sheet created by the group states that Spellings advocated for the elimination of regulations on funds going to for-profit institutions. The sheet emphasizes her support for the elimination of the 50 percent rule, which required at least half of programs and students to be based on campus for an educational institution to receive federal funding. The removal of the regulation has provided an opening for online for-profit institutions to receive federal funding.
The fact sheet also points out that Spellings served as senior advisor for the Boston Consulting Group between 2009 and 2013, during which time BCG consultants’ plan for Philadelphia School reform included closing 60 school buildings and privatizing unionized school support jobs.
Recently, Spellings and the Board of Governors—using funding from an anonymous donor—commissioned a report from the Boston Consulting Group to analyze the UNC General Administration. Bissette explained that the report represents an effort to ensure the best possible organization for tasks ahead and that a reduction in positions is not “in the thinking.”
Looking forward after Tom Ross
Ultimately, both those who support and oppose Spellings’ appointment agreed on the positive performance by Ross. Cravey explained that Ross understood the mission of the UNC system and had the “public interests at heart.”
Bissette voiced similar support for Ross.
“Tom Ross did a great job with the University system through a very difficult time in a recession,” Bissette said. “I would consider him to be one of the finest presidents the University system has ever had.”
In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Ross said he had intended to stay in the position of president for another three to five years before he was asked to step down. He explained that despite disagreeing with the Board’s decision, he does not believe in personal attacks and wanted to put the University first.
Protest movements from groups such as Faculty Forward continue as the first official day of Spellings’ presidency nears.
“We’re doing as much education work as we can, we’re organizing on every campus that we can, we’re publishing op-eds, we’re doing research, we’re protesting at the Board of Governors meeting,” Cravey said. “We’re doing everything we can think of.”
Those on the Board of Governors, however, have taken issue with the methods of protest employed by the those opposed to Spellings’ presidency.
“In [the recent Board of Governors meeting Tuesday] there were profanities chanted, there was actually an assault on a police officer and in a civil, democratic, society, that’s not the way people are supposed to function,” Bissette said. “We were elected by the General Assembly of the state of North Carolina, which was elected by the people of the state of North Carolina, so they may not respect us, but they need to respect the people of the state because that’s why we’re there.”
Bissette said that the University should now be looking forward.
“The board is now trying to move ahead and look to the future and Tom is too,” he said.