Former Bush education chief Spellings to lead UNC system

AP News
Posted: Oct 23, 2015 5:13 PM
Former Bush education chief Spellings to lead UNC system

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was chosen Friday to lead North Carolina's public university system, bringing a nonacademic background heavy on Republican public policy credentials to the post.

Spellings, a protege of former President George W. Bush, will take office in March overseeing 17 campuses and more than 220,000 students. Her selection comes as several university boards in the U.S. have recently picked leaders from outside academia, and her Republican bona fides could encourage budget-writers in North Carolina's GOP-dominated legislature.

Spellings will replace Tom Ross, a Democrat who was pushed out by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors after members said they wanted a change. The system's flagship school at Chapel Hill is still grappling with a scandal in which athletes benefited from sham classes and artificially high grades for almost two decades.

Ross is scheduled to step down in January. Spellings' five-year contract will pay her a base salary of $775,000 a year, a nearly 30 percent increase over Ross'.

In remarks to the board, Spellings discussed the importance of ensuring quality education for all, especially poor and minority students.

"We must close the achievement gap at all levels," she said.

Spellings, 57, is the first UNC president without an advanced degree since the 1950s. She earned a bachelor's in political science from the University of Houston. The five previous presidents had either law degrees or master's degrees in business or economics.

Elsewhere, other university leaders selected from outside the academic world include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, running the University of California system, and former IBM executive Bruce Harreld as the University of Iowa's next president.

Spellings' ties to Bush date back over a quarter-century, when she was a lobbyist for the Texas school boards association and Bush was considering a run for governor. Bush made Spellings political director of his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, then his education policy adviser.

Spellings followed Bush to the White House, where she worked as domestic policy adviser before becoming education secretary from 2005 to 2009. She now heads the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

Bush issued a statement congratulating Spellings and calling her "among my most trusted confidants."

"Margaret is a strong leader, a role model, and a tireless champion for America's students," he said.

Public funding for the UNC system represents about 13 percent of the state budget — a higher proportion than many other public university systems — but it has stayed relatively flat since the start of the recession in 2008 despite rising inflation, forcing cuts and layoffs. Tuition raises have increased by more than 50 percent.

Spellings is smart, hardworking and an able administrator, said Stephen Trachtenberg, the former head of George Washington University who co-authored a book examining why university presidencies fail. One of Spellings' missions will be building relationships with professors who probably think she was hired to make changes they won't like, Trachtenberg said.

"University leaders can get very, very little done unless they have buy-in from the faculty," Trachtenberg said.

On Friday, members of the system-wide faculty assembly complained that professors weren't able to meet with Spellings.

"We have a president who is in a deficit position in terms of trust," said Spoma Jovanovic, a communications professor at UNC-Greensboro.

It's troubling that the board didn't involve the faculty or students in reviewing candidates, said assembly chairman Stephen Leonard, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"The board has done all this in clear contravention of its own professed principles" of honoring faculty input on governance issues, he said.

Asked by reporters about the faculty's stance, Spellings said: "I would ask them to give me a chance."

"I have skills that are different from theirs. I'm not an academic, and I'm not a teacher. I'm not a researcher," she said. "I'm somebody who understands public policy making. I understand advocacy. I understand how to bring people together around a shared mission."


Emery Dalesio can be reached at

Jonathan Drew can be reached at:


Dalesio reported from Raleigh.