She said higher education is presented as a tool for upward economic mobility, but many Americans are unable to take advantage of it. The perception that college is not accessible, she said, has fueled criticism about the value of education.
"We’ve always been an arena for debate and controversy, but we’re now a regular actor in political dramas we didn’t seek and don’t control," she said. "And that takes a toll, both in terms of public perception and in our day-to-day ability to get things done."
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning moderates said universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while 36 percent say their effect is positive — a change from two years ago.
Spellings said part of that could do with increased attention to political conflicts and free speech debates, which she said are an "endless stream of high-profile distractions."
She said the decline in trust should push policymakers to reconsider standardized assessment.
"A decade on from the commission report, we still know very little about whether our institutions of higher learning are succeeding at their core mission," she said. "We don’t know whether they are effectively teaching critical reasoning, fundamental mastery of science and mathematics, or advanced reading, writing and communications skills."
She emphasized the need for transparency in the process.
"Our collective reluctance to define measurable learning — to come up with a transparent way of owning our successes and shortcoming — has undermined public confidence and emboldened a less effective, more ideological attitude of disruption," she said.
The event featured two panel discussions with higher education experts and leaders, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.
Other notable attendees were former N.C. Gov. James Hunt, UNC Board of Governors members, North Carolina legislators and UNC-system university chancellors.
The only students in attendance were UNC student body president Elizabeth Adkins and UNC-system student body president Tyler Hardin.
Adkins and Hardin said they encouraged Spellings and other leaders to invite students to events like Tuesday's.
"It is my job to say, 'Please bring more students in,'" Adkins said. "They want to speak to you."