She previously served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, during which time she implemented the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Her selection was met with protests: more than 5,000 students protested across six UNC campuses on March 1, 2016, Spellings' first day in office.
Protestors cited her role in the Bush administration, her tenure on the board of the for-profit company Apollo Education Group, Inc., her comments on LGBTQ "lifestyles" after her selection as UNC-system president in 2015 and the BOG's then-recent cuts in funding to historically Black colleges and universities as the reasons for class walk-outs and a rally at Wilson Library.
Spellings came under fire later that year for sending a memorandum to chancellors directing universities how to comply with House Bill 2, a move that was criticized by The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Lambda Legal and Equality NC.
“It is in no way an endorsement of this law,” Spellings said in a conference call with reporters five days after the memo was released. “The concerns (are) that this guidance has engendered a belief that we are driving hard forward on support for the law, which is not the case.”
In a July 2017 interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Spellings addressed how her relationships in the UNC System had evolved during her first year in office.
"I felt like if people had gotten to know me, they would see that whether we’ve agreed 100 percent at the time or not is really not the issue," Spellings said. "It’s that I’m an honest broker and respectful to people in and out of the institution and I think that they’ve gotten to that same place with me and it’s a productive environment. So I think things have really settled down and I’m glad to be here. I hope they’re glad I’m here."
In her time at the helm of the UNC System, Spellings has advocated for college affordability and making it easier to transfer to a four-year university from a community college. In 2016, Spellings implemented a fixed tuition plan across the UNC System, which guaranteed tuition rates would remain the same through four years of continuous enrollment at a system university.
This fall, Spellings launched NC Promise, which set in-state tuition at $500 per semester and out-of-state tuition at $2,500 a semester at Elizabeth City State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University.
Spellings embarked on a State of the University Address Tour in March 2018, in which she visited eight UNC campuses over the course of the spring. The tour was meant to reflect on then-recent initiatives happening within system schools and the highlight the system's successes.
Along with the tour, Spellings also released a self-evaluation report, detailing the performance of different universities in the system.
In a 2016 feature on Spellings prior to her taking office, she admitted that few expected her to come to the UNC System, but that she was looking forward to the opportunity.
“If somebody had told me five months ago, I’d move to North Carolina ... I would have called you crazy,” Spellings said. “But I’m really excited to be doing it.”
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