Spellings reflects on UNC accomplishments, board oversight and political passions

Margaret Spellings on her time as President of the UNC system

Margaret Spellings is leaving her post in the spring of 2019. Spellings spoke with The News & Observer on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 about her experience leading the UNC system.
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Margaret Spellings is leaving her post in the spring of 2019. Spellings spoke with The News & Observer on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 about her experience leading the UNC system.

Margaret Spellings will head back to Texas when her tenure as UNC system president ends Jan. 15, but for now, she’s a little wistful about the things she will miss.

The president’s home on Franklin Street. The natural beauty of North Carolina, from the mountains to the beaches to the fall foliage in Chapel Hill. Even pork barbecue.

But perhaps mostly, she’ll miss the people, Spellings said Wednesday — the people she works with, but also the people of North Carolina, with their love and respect for public higher education.

Spellings met with reporters Wednesday, on the same day when a new Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of North Carolinians surveyed think that education beyond high school is “essential for getting a good job.” But more than half disagree that people in the state receive the same quality of education regardless of race and income, and 46 percent agree that a four-year degree is worth the cost.

The poll of 3,500 North Carolinians was conducted for the My Future NC Commission, convened by Spellings to set a goal for college credential attainment. That goal will be unveiled next month by the commission, shortly before Spellings leaves North Carolina.

In a wide-ranging conversation Wednesday, Spellings talked about the importance of college affordability, a sometimes contentious relationship with the Board of Governors and her future plans.

On why she’s stepping down, Spellings quoted a country singer. “As Kenny Rogers said, ‘You’ve got to know when to hold’em and to know when to fold’em.’ I just think people are for a time and a situation. I think I was absolutely the right person three years ago. We’ve gotten a lot done,” she said, referring to her strategy focused on a few key areas.

“We have a strategic plan that is really super clear and very focused on affordability, accountability and attainment and all in service to the needs of the state, an educated workforce and a prosperous place to live and work. … We know what we’re about. We know what we’re trying to do and we are holding ourselves accountable for doing it.”

Spellings said she has evaluated chancellors of the 17 universities based on their performance on metrics that were developed from her plan. The first report cards on the metrics will come out next month. The measures could be the basis of performance pay going forward, she said, as her successor, UNC Health Care CEO Dr. William Roper, takes the reins in January.

Spellings, a Republican, was diplomatic when asked about whether her relationship with the UNC system’s 28-member, Republican-dominated governing board was the reason behind her departure. When someone suggested the 17 UNC campuses were like Spellings’ children, she joked, “and 28 stepchildren.”

She said she and the board share the same goals, but she added that the board has “a tremendous operational focus.” She has previously expressed frustration with the board getting involved in issues such as where her offices should be, the scope of her staff and her communications with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, on the issue of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Any of us who serve in government understand that you do that always in a political environment,” she said. “We deal in lots of people’s money and their children, so there’s a lot of passion in issues that we deal in. So I wasn’t surprised nor cowed by the level of politics. I think we’re in a time when our civil discourse in our country has maybe deteriorated a bit since my days in the Bush administration.”

On the first day of her presidency, students held protests and Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, was the target of faculty skepticism. She set about winning people over.

Since she announced she’s leaving, people have come up to her at Whole Foods or Merritt’s Store in Chapel Hill and said, “We’re so sorry we were so mean to you,” she said. “NOW, you tell me.”

In remarking on North Carolina’s politics and bureaucracy, Spellings said there needs to be more local control on campuses and less “Mother may I” requests of the system board or legislature. She said her philosophy is to “turn up” the bottom line accountability measures in order to “turn down the micromanagement.”

She said her choice to leave was a gut decision. Many of the board members who hired her are no longer serving, and she said “their prerogatives and priorities change along with it. That’s the nature of board governance. These are all organic institutions.”

A recent column in the National Review suggested Spellings didn’t do enough to please conservatives in North Carolina. She said Wednesday she would put her conservative credentials up against anybody’s. “I think it suggests more a sign of the times, than it does about my orthodoxy,” she said.

She said she’s not sure what’s next. She will move back to Dallas but will keep her beach house at Bald Head Island and she quipped that she needs to wean herself from her addiction to buying North Carolina pottery.

Spellings’ next career chapter will likely to be connected to higher education.

She said she has no doubt the university system is in a good position and will thrive going forward.

Higher education has enjoyed widespread taxpayer and legislative support over generations, she said, and the UNC system is known as the state’s “number one asset.”

“People understand that the University of North Carolina has made North Carolina different from other competitor states and they get what it brings to bear for them and for their communities,” she said.

Spellings’ view on the future of education is simple, she said. “We need to serve more people, more affordably, more conveniently and more rapidly, throughout our lifetimes.”

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.

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