By Phillip Wyatt, News Staff Writer
Nov. 11, 2015
Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary for the George W. Bush administration, was unanimously elected president of the University of North Carolina system on Oct. 23 by the system’s board of governors.
As president, she will officiate over 220,000 students enrolled in 16 university campuses throughout the state. She is the second woman to ever take the helm of the UNC system.
Spellings replaces Tom Ross, a Democrat and current system president, who will step down in January per the board of governors’ request.
She will begin her 5-year contract in March with a base annual salary of $775,000 , plus deferred compensation of $77,500 annually and potential performance-based bonuses. Her salary is a nearly 30 percent increase over Ross’, according to UNC data.
Spellings received a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Houston. She is the first UNC president without an advanced degree since the 1950s.
After Spellings, 57, worked with the former President Bush during his second term, she was appointed president of the George W. Bush Center in Dallas, the former president’s library and museum.
In 2012, Republicans gained majority in both houses of North Carolina legislature, stacking the UNC System Board of Governors with partisan delegates with conservative viewpoints and opinions.
Mere days after Spellings was appointed secretary of education, she composed a letter to PBS after viewing an episode of “Postcards From Buster” on the network featuring same-sex parents.
In the letter, Spellings addresses concern for parents who do not wish to expose children to the “lifestyles” portrayed in the episode. She expressed disdain over federal funding being used to finance such programming.
Spellings was asked a question regarding the letter at a press conference after her election.
“I have no comments about those lifestyles,” she said.
Spellings’ answer did not resonate well with Chris Sgro, executive director of LGBT+ rights group Equality North Carolina.
“The fact she felt like she could use the word ‘lifestyles’ after what she did around PBS is really problematic to us,” Sgro said.
Spellings noted the challenging times higher education is currently experiencing.
“While there are no easy answers or an obvious road map for the way ahead, the opportunity is clear – to firmly establish the University of North Carolina as the finest university system in the country,” she said. “To accomplish this mission, we must be productive, accountable, agile and transparent. We must keep a firm grasp on our obligation to innovate, to remain the engine that drives North Carolina’s growth and assures such great quality of life here.”
The future UNC system president emphasized the importance of making higher education affordable and accessible to all students.
“Today in our country, we are far short of achieving this, especially for our poor and minority communities,” Spellings said. “We must continue to excel at research, scholarship, public service and innovation, and we must close the achievement gap at all levels. We can, and must, do both.”
Terry Van Duyn, North Carolina Senator for District 49 in Buncombe County, said she hopes there will be no direct effect by Spellings’ anti-gay position on LGBT+ university students.
“I believe she is much too politically astute to want to make sexual orientation an issue, and more importantly, I believe our university students won’t stand for it,” Van Duyn said.
Spellings’ willingness to censor public television over the issue of gender equality is precisely why she was chosen, Van Duyn said.
“North Carolina is frighteningly out of balance,” she said. “The governor, the legislature and the governing boards they have put in place are fiercely pursuing a vision for North Carolina that is driven by narrow ideology, and that ideology threatens academic freedom.”
Van Duyn said she is most concerned Spellings will be an advocate for the ideologues that hired her rather than the UNC system.
“The legislature is not living up to its responsibility under the constitution, to ‘provide that the benefits of the university, as far as practicable, is extended to the youth of the state free of expense for tuition,’” Van Duyn said. “The legislature controls the budget for the UNC system, and they are not making the investments needed to sustain, let alone, nurture it.”
Anna Hitrova, political science student at the UNC Asheville and communications coordinator for Van Duyn said she wasn’t shocked to hear of Spellings’ election.
“The board was pushing for her and fighting with the general assembly about it,” Hitrova said. “It wasn’t a surprise, especially knowing the general assembly elected very conservative members to the board.”
Hitrova said she believes the UNC system already had a very qualified president in Ross and disagrees with his removal.
“I’m very worried about the future of the UNC system and the state of North Carolina in general,” Hitrova said. “She’s just a reflection of a greater problem I think is occurring.”
Hitrova said she recommends students write to their state legislators to express their concerns, remain informed on what is happening and, most importantly, vote.