Spellings, who the UNC-system Board of Governors elected by a unanimous vote Friday, was asked about comments she made in 2005 when she pushed for a PBS television program that would have featured a lesbian couple to be pulled off the air.
Spellings was the Secretary of Education under former President George W. Bush at the time and sent a letter to the PBS president saying, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode.”
“I have no comments about those lifestyles,” she said at a press conference Friday, saying her issue at the time was with federal funds being used.
This comment prompted a social media firestorm, as people questioned Spellings’ ability to lead a system with what they see as antiquated views on homosexuality.
“To say it is a lifestyle choice does a huge disservice to people like me who went through this,” said Zack King, the first UNC-System Association of Student Governments President who is openly gay.
“I think it is imperative to educate our kids with a full range of what families are or can be.”
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride — a national advocacy group for LGBT issues on college campuses based in Charlotte — said the term “lifestyles” was troubling.
“We are in 2015. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans — they’re people, they’re not lifestyles,” he said. “She should know better, she’s an educated woman ... it’s ridiculous, it’s moronic. It shows she has not evolved one bit in the last 10 years.”
King, who is a non-voting member on the board, said it is, “incredibly important to differentiate from a lifestyle choice and what being LGBTQ is.”
The system president should understand the need for a safe learning environment for all students, Windmeyer said.
Despite whatever personal views the president might hold, King said the actual impact on campuses would be negligible.
“I would say to any students, ‘Don’t worry, there are many protections in place to prevent discrimination,’” he said.
Windmeyer said Spellings has had a historically anti-LGBT agenda working for the Bush administration.
“The educational system is not a system that should be partisan,” he said.
Spellings, who helped implement the now-controversial No Child Left Behind Act, admitted to being inherently political in her press conference, noting “these are all political settings.”
“That’s the fun of it,” she said.
She comes to North Carolina after serving as the president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Bush, one of Spellings’ assumed political influencers, has a mixed history when it comes to gay rights. The 43rd President of the United States endorsed the right for states to decide on whether civil unions between same-sex couples should be allowed when running for re-election in 2004, but backed a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage later in the year.
Spellings, who was one of 230 applicants for the position, will assume the system presidency in March 2016.
Current President Tom Ross has said he will step down in January, one year after he was pushed out.
The board has never given a public statement for Ross’ dismissal, but many believe it was politically motivated. When the Republican party took control of the state legislature in 2012, the board’s political affiliations changed accordingly.
Spellings has a five-year contract that will pay $775,000 annually and provide a retirement plan, relocation expenses, a car allowance, 30 days of annual leave and the president house in Chapel Hill.
Her salary is a $175,000 raise from what ousted President Tom Ross made in his most recent contract.
UNC-system faculty and staff, in contrast, did not receive a raise in the approved state budget, but instead got a one-time $750 bonus that UNC Employee Forum chairperson Charles Streeter likened to being “spit in the face” by legislature at the forum’s September meeting because it was so minimal.
Spellings’ office in Dallas did not respond to calls for comment by press time Sunday.