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The Daily Tar Heel

Margaret Spellings unfazed by critics

New UNC-System president Margaret Spellings sits in the historic Carolina Inn.
New UNC-System president Margaret Spellings sits in the historic Carolina Inn.

Not by the murky future of higher education that is quickly approaching, not by the faculty and students who have called for her resignation and, certainly, not by a reporter from the campus newspaper — as she reminded The Daily Tar Heel over breakfast at the Carolina Inn last week.

The 58-year-old UNC system president-elect, who takes the helm March 1, is unabashedly blunt — or, in her own words, “a get-to-the-result kind of person.”

“You don’t have to guess where you stand with her,” said David Dunn, Spellings’ former chief of staff when she served as Secretary of Education for former president George W. Bush.

“She’s very direct.”

A rough start

A 2005 letter Spellings sent to the president of PBS has become a focal point for many students’ discontent with her selection.

The letter, which was about an animated children’s show called “Postcards from Buster,” said, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles.” in an episode that would have featured two lesbian couples from Vermont.

When asked about the letter at her introductory press conference in October, Spellings said she had “no comments about those lifestyles.”

The letter, Spellings notes, was sent more than a decade ago, and she regrets repeating the term lifestyles that a reporter used when phrasing the question.

“There’s just not a discriminatory bone in my body.”

One of her favorite people in Washington, D.C. was Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., according to Dubravka Romano, who worked with Spellings in the ‘80s on the Texas Association of School Boards.

“You don’t get confirmed by the United States Senate unanimously with Ted Kennedy in the chair if you’re a hater,” Spellings said.

The Campus Y and activists at UNC’s town hall on race and inclusion have called for her dismissal because of her perceived stance on LBGT individuals.

“She has shown herself to be homophobic,” the activists’ list of 55 demands reads.

Both have also called attention to Spellings’ history on the Board of Directors of the Apollo Group, Inc., the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix — an example students and faculty hold up of the imminent corporatization of the system.

“I make no apology for experiences I’ve had in the private sector to learn about higher education and what customers want. It’s not a criminal enterprise,” said Spellings, who left the board in 2013.

She’s also hired a Boston consulting firm to examine the inner workings of the general administration for the UNC system. Though she won’t be auditing individual university performance, she said the 17 campuses will be held to a certain standard.

“Do our consumers and customers and students need information and a sound value proposition at an affordable price that’s relevant to their future? Hell yeah,” Spellings said.

A political past

She likes to say education chose her.

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The oldest of four daughters born to a Canadian father and American mother, Spellings moved to Texas when she was young.

“It’s five years from me to my youngest sister...which makes for a lot of hair pulling in the short run and good friendships in the long run.”

After college, she went to work at the Texas state legislature where she met George W. Bush, who was thinking of running for governor.

“After he got elected as governor, he stole her permanently,” Romano said.

And once Bush became president, Spellings was chosen as one of his top advisors during his first term.

“It made perfect sense that someone who he trusted more than anyone else on education would run his Domestic Policy Council on education,” said Dunn, who worked on the council.

Spellings recalled meeting the “Big Four” in education in 2001 — Democrats Ted Kennedy and George Miller, and Republicans John Boehner and Jim Jeffords — with Bush in the Oval Office on one of her first days.

They talked education and, two days later, were invited with their spouses to The White House’s movie theater to watch “Thirteen Days,” a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis — one of many “pinch-me” moments for the University of Houston alumna.

Bush named Spellings Secretary of Education at the start of his second term, where she is most remembered for her role in implementing No Child Left Behind — a 2001 policy born from the idea that disadvantaged K-12 students shouldn’t fall through the cracks of public education.

“The core guts, caring enough to find out how poor and minority students are doing, holding ourselves accountable for their progress and doing something about it when they fail — it’s as sound today as it was then,” she said.

During its implementation, Dunn said he and Spellings were initially criticized for not being conservative enough.

“The whole focus was more increased federal resources, greater accountability at the state and local level — education outcomes for low-income and minority kids,” he said.

He said he expects her focus on these students to carry over to North Carolina.

“(North Carolina) will find her to be fair, engaging and, frankly, fun.”

Her past brings a background rooted in politics, something the UNC system has avoided in the past. But Spellings is not planning on disregarding her experience in the Bush Administration.

“These are all political settings ... and that’s the fun of it,” she said at her introductory press conference in October.

Challenges welcome

Romano was surprised when Spellings accepted the post in North Carolina.

“I didn’t see that coming but, again, Margaret is a person who recognizes opportunities when they present themselves,” she said. “I guess this one did.”

And it came as a bit of a shock to Spellings, too.

“If somebody had told me five months ago, I’d move to North Carolina ... I would have called you crazy,” she said. “But I’m really excited to be doing it.”

Her transition to higher education in North Carolina comes at a time of scrutiny.

In January 2014, former system President Tom Ross was asked to resign his post of five years — and made it clear it was not his choice.

The search for his successor was dominated by closed-door meetings, legislative intervention and general frustration with the process.

Even once Spellings was named, maligned former chairperson John Fennebresque resigned within three days of her appointment.

But Spellings, despite the outcry to her election, could bring increased openness to the board that underwent government transparency training in December.

In 2006, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, or the Spellings’ Commission, was released. The report made recommendations that included simplifying the financial aid system and improved transparency on college campuses.

“I think accountability is what the public expects of you in the public sector...” Spellings said. “That’s not a dirty word for me.”

Charles Miller, who chaired the commission, said Spellings’ knowledge of education in a public policy sense is better than most academics and is well-suited for the presidency.

“North Carolina is lucky to have her,” he said. “They don’t seem to be welcoming her with open arms.”

Miller asked those who have protested her appointment who the right person for the job would be, if not Spellings.

“Pick a name,” he said.

Spellings has not been as confrontational with her critics. In fact, she welcomes them.

“I would invite them to get to know me,” she said, unintimidated.

“I would like to get to know them.”