Margaret Spellings, a top aide to George W. Bush during his presidency who rose to the cabinet as secretary of education, was elected the eighth president of the consolidated UNC System on Friday.
Spellings, who started working for Bush when he was governor of Texas and has spent more than three decades in education and public policy work, will take office March 1. Thomas W. Ross ’75 (JD), who was pushed out of the position 10 months ago by the system Board of Governors, will step down in January after five years leading the 17-campus system.
“Given her stature, proven intellect, skill set and passion for education, Margaret Spellings is perfectly positioned to lead the UNC System into the future,” said search committee Chair Joan McNeill.
Spellings’ election by the BOG was unanimous after a search process that turned controversial.
“I believe that there is no more important area of public policy than education,” Spellings told the board following her election. “It is not an overstatement to say that education is not only fundamental to each individual North Carolinian, but to the success and future of this state, this country and to peace and stability in the world. I believe this with every fiber of my being, and that is why I will work tirelessly with all of you to ensure that each and every student in North Carolina has not only access to higher education, but the skills and abilities to fully access the American dream.”
Spellings, 57, has led the George W. Bush Presidential Center since 2013. In that role, she oversees the operations of the former president’s foundation, public policy institute and, in collaboration with the National Archives and Records Administration, his presidential library and museum.
She managed Bush’s domestic policy agenda as a White House domestic policy adviser from 2001 to 2005. She oversaw the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and helped develop a comprehensive immigration plan. Spellings also oversaw initiatives on health and human services, transportation, labor, justice and housing.
In 2005, she worked closely with a key higher education issue — accessibility and affordability — when she convened the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. During that time she represented the Bush administration’s development and implementation of international education agreements with China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries.
Bush named Spellings secretary of education that year, and she led the implementation of the No Child Left Behind accountability initiative for U.S. public schools. She served in the cabinet for five years.
In brief remarks to the board and later to the media, Spellings twice mentioned that African-American students and other minorities are behind their peers in college success. “We must close the achievement gap at all levels,” she said.
“We are in challenging times for higher education. We must be public, accountable, agile and transparent.”
Spellings was asked to what extent politics will play a role in her leadership.
“You know, these are all political settings,” she said. “That’s how we make public policy in this setting and in this state. And in a political setting that we call a democracy, obviously. … Our publics understand that, too — that our leaders, our legislators and funders and stakeholders are bought into it and that we’re moving out around that shared vision, so you bet, that’s what makes it fun. That’s what provides input. That’s what allows us to make course corrections where needed. So you bet, I think it’s a fantastic way to make policy, is in a political setting.”
In 2012, she spent a year on the board of directors of the Apollo Group Inc., a for-profit education provider of which the University of Phoenix is the flagship. Asked about her feelings about for-profit schooling, she said: “I think that there is plenty of room and plenty of opportunity for every single higher education provider, whether it’s the for-profit sector, whether it’s the nonprofit sector, the private sector, you name it — we need it. Because we have lots of work to do to reach the kind of attainment that we need to. So I don’t think we should be threatened by that.
“That industry invented higher education in a way that was more convenient for working adults. And many in traditional higher education have responded to it, kind of a la carte offerings, MOOCs, more technology-based programs. … I learned a lot about how we can serve our students and think of them as customers and providing a product in convenient ways for them.”
Spellings will receive a base salary of $775,000 and a generous benefits package, including residence in the 108-year-old president’s house on Franklin Street. Ross earned $600,000 in his final year. Ann Goodnight, a vice chair of the search committee, said Spellings was the first of the candidates the committee interviewed.
Spellings’ election was forged in controversy.
At least two BOG members called for Chair John Fennebresque ’70 to resign over what they called a breakdown in leadership and the failure of the search committee to keep other BOG members apprised of the search progress.
The N.C. General Assembly, which chooses BOG members, passed a bill that would require presentation of three presidential candidates to the entire BOG for consideration, and legislative leaders admonished the BOG not to act against the measure. But on Friday Gov. Pat McCrory had yet to sign the bill into law. According to a news release issued Friday by the UNC System, the search committee interviewed 14 candidates and submitted four finalist names to the full board for consideration.
Following a meeting of the search committee on Oct. 16, the entire board was called to an emergency meeting set for two days later at which it met with Spellings. Shortly afterward, a meeting to elect the new president was moved up from Oct. 30 to today.
Spellings’ election was on shaky ground with the Faculty Assembly, which represents faculty at all 17 campuses, before it happened.
Faculty across the state are upset that they were not included in the search process. Stephen Leonard, a UNC associate professor of political science who chairs the assembly, said that to his knowledge, faculty, students and staff never have been included. “I have been to every scheduled meeting of the search committee and have never been asked to arrange for faculty, students or staff to address the committee,” Leonard said.
On Thursday, the assembly released a statement that read in part, “The recent mismanagement of the Executive office of the University [system], from the firing of Thomas Ross, to the hiring of the new President, is but the most egregious in a long train of problematic governance actions.
“The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of the new President to the well-being of the University. But she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when she was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community.
“Over the years, the most effective and respected leaders of the University system and its respective campuses have argued that their success is contingent on the support of staff and faculty. We now appear to have entered an era when it is not support but an ill-informed indifference that defines how governing authorities in the University think of their relationship to those who carry out the core mission of public higher education.”
Leonard and members of the Faculty Assembly met with the media after Spellings’ election and reiterated their stand but declined to comment on the merits of her election.
Spellings was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., while her father was studying for a doctorate. She was raised in Texas and received her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston. She does not have additional degrees.
Besides working for Bush when he was governor, she worked in governmental relations for the state’s Association of School Boards. She also worked for Austin Community College.
In a statement, Bush said: “Laura and I congratulate our dear friend Margaret Spellings on her unanimous election as President of the University of North Carolina System. Margaret is a strong leader, a role model, and a tireless champion for America’s students. She has been among my most trusted confidants for nearly 20 years.”
Spellings has two adult daughters.
Spellings’ election comes 10 months after the BOG voted, with one member dissenting, to end the tenure of Ross.
Ross made it clear he was not ready to retire. On the day of the action, Fennebresque offered no clues as to why the board shortened Ross’ presidency; very little in the way of explanation has emerged since.
The closest Fennebresque came to answering the repeated “why” question was that the BOG wanted to “work with a new leader a year from now that may bring other assets to the job.”
Before leading the UNC System, Ross had been president of Davidson College and was a former Superior Court judge and former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. He has been involved in public service throughout a career that includes a stint as a top aide to an N.C. congressman and as director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
Ross is expected to embark on a year of research leave upon leaving the presidency, after which he has an appointment as a professor of public law and government in UNC’s School of Government.