CHAPEL HILL N.C. (WNCN) – Margaret Spellings, the former secretary of education under President George W. Bush, began her reign as president of the UNC system amid continued controversy Tuesday.
Some students had planned a classroom walkout and a rally was held on the university system’s flagship Chapel Hill campus.
“These are students and faculty who have opinions,” Spellings told CBS North Carolina.”I would ask that they give me a chance. I’m looking forward to getting to know them, learning what their issues are and getting to work on the things that we are in common cause.”
Spellings plans to visit all 17 UNC campuses, including Fayetteville State on Wednesday.
“For starters, I am going to do a lot of listening,” Spellings said. “But I am going to ask a couple of questions around what people are proud of.”
She said she had many meetings and forums planned to get feedback across the system.
Opponents of her hiring have said the process was done in secret, and opponents are critical of her record, which includes the launch of No Child Left Behind and having served on the board of a company, the Apollo Group, that collects student loan debt.
Spellings responded, “They are the No. 1 contractor with the U.S. Department of Education, so if it’s good enough for the Obama Administration, it’s good enough for me.”
She said her priorities included the accessibility and affordability of higher education.
“This is a time in our nation’s economy when if you do not have access to higher education, if you do not have some post-secondary credential, your opportunities are pretty limited.”
Anti-Spellings demonstrations have been staged since Spellings, who has deep Republican ties and most recently was the head of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, was picked to head the 17-campus system in October after a controversial search process by the Republican-led UNC Board of Governors.
Some students North Carolina News spoke with expressed strong feelings about Spellings’ hiring.
“It’s disgusting! It’s a conflict of interest! She’s a leech profiting off of our suffering. She was the architect of No Child Left Behind, which ruined education in the United States,” said UNC senior Madeline Scanlon.
“We believe that if she couldn’t pass national policy successfully or oversee, rather, a national policy successfully, then she’s not a good fit for the UNC System,” said Richard Lindayen, a junior at UNC and a member of the Board of Governors Democracy Coalition.
UNC associate professor of geography Altha Cravey explained the reasoning behind Tuesday’s rally and her concerns with Spellings.
“Today is her first day on the job. She’s already started. What can be accomplished through [the protests] now? Well, to draw attention to her ideology, her long public record on these matters and what that means for the future of North Carolina,” said the professor who has taught at UNC for 21 years. “I think there’s growing concern as people find out about her record. The faculty council here on this campus passed a resolution about her stance on LGBTQ matters.”
Two board members had complained that they had not been kept apprised of the search progress while faculty across the state system were upset that they were not included in the search process.
SPECIAL SECTION: Margaret Spellings hired as UNC system president
The hiring of Spellings came 10 months after the board voted to end the tenure of Tom Ross, a Democrat who had been executive director of the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Ross said he was not ready to retire and he got support of a number of faculty, students and University system staff.
After Spellings was named, Gov. Pat McCrory said she certainly has challenges. “I think she’s got to look at what students are going to need to learn during the next 20 to 30 years to compete with not only the rest of the United States, but the rest of the world,” he said.
A dozen protesters were hauled out of a UNC Board of Governor’s meeting in January as they called for the removal of Spellings as the UNC system president. Four were arrested and charged with disruption of an official meeting and resisting officers.
At the UNC board retreat in Greensboro Feb. 12, Spellings choked up while speaking about the demonstrations against her hiring. “I’ve been surprised at the intensity of the reaction,” she said.
At that retreat, Spellings told the board she would visit the campuses in her first 100 days on the job. “Those are all scheduled,” she said. “I know that I’ll be seeing many of you around the state as well. Those conversations are critical to laying a great foundation for governance.”
Just last week the state NAACP held a news conference questioning the hiring of Spellings and announced that they had delivered a public records request to the UNC General Administration to discover information about the hiring process.
Spellings, 58, who signed a five-year deal at an annual salary of $775,000, has insisted that she will work to build consensus as the new UNC leader. She said she would reach out to Ross and others and work to find common ground on key issues.
On her first day as president Tuesday, she has several introductory meetings scheduled with administration staff, chancellors and faculty leaders. She starts her tour of UNC campuses and affiliates next week in conjunction with the UNC Board of Governors meeting at Fayetteville State University.
Spellings led the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. She also led a commission, often called the Spellings Commission, that offered ways to change higher education.
Her work on the 2006 Spellings Commission to “chart the future of U.S. higher education” could serve as a guide for how she leads the UNC system.
The commission’s lengthy report concluded:
- Every U.S. student should have a shot at some education after high school
- The student aid system needed to be “restructured” to address the rising costs of college
- Higher education has to focus on performance, with strict measures of accountability
- Colleges have to be more in tune with changes in fields like science and mathematics to meet the needs of the knowledge economy and make the United States more competitive globally
It was reported by the Associated Press Monday that opponents of Spelling include an offshoot of one of the country’s largest labor unions.
Opposition groups include the Faculty Forward Network, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union’s campus labor organizing efforts. Malini Cadambi Daniel coordinates the union’s efforts to organize college and university employees around the country. She says the union provides Faculty Forward Network with financial and staffing support.