Tar Heels may disagree on just about anything under the sun — with one exception: the University of North Carolina.
UNC has won the hearts of the citizens since it was founded in 1789. It is the oldest public university system in America. It operates 16 universities on 17 campuses, including the NC School of Science and Mathematics, a high school for gifted students.
Remarkably, UNC confers about 75 percent of all BA degrees granted in the state. Students attend from every corner of the world because of its unblemished reputation for high scholastic standards.
It is no longer a free institution, in spite of the state constitution’s statement that “The benefits shall be, ‘as far as practicable, extended to the people of the state, free of charge.’” Tuition under the current GOP state administration has increased over 30 percent since 2008.
One reason for its success and sterling international reputation is that it’s been governed by leaders selected not merely for political prominence, but for proven devotion to scholarship and learning. A good example was William Clyde Friday, a North Carolinian who served for 30 years at Chapel Hill and became head of the entire UNC system as it developed. The tradition at UNC had been to hire top-notch native North Carolinians to head the system.
All that changed last year when Republican appointees fired a highly qualified educator, Thomas W. Ross, without cause, and replaced him with a political operative from Texas: Margaret Spellings.
Spellings holds a BA degree in political science from the University of Houston, but earned no higher academic degrees. She is not a scholar, but is a purely political animal of the highest order. She ran George W. Bush’s first gubernatorial campaign. As president, he then appointed her to run the U.S. Department of Education.
Spellings’ selection as president of the UNC system was rushed through by its Board of Governors after a selection process that was fast and highly controversial. The Monday after she was nominated, the board chairman, John Fennebresque, was forced to resign.
Faculty members have objected to the secretive process by which Spellings was selected, as did some legislators and board members. Her starting salary is $775,000, which is $175,000 more than Ross was paid. At a time when professors got a belated one-time pay increase of $750, the board voted salary increases to a dozen chancellors ranging from 8 percent to 19 percent.
Just one day after being appointed to the U.S. Department of Education, Spelling wrote to the Public Broadcasting System, warning the network not to air a children’s program in which an animated bunny named Buster
visits Vermont to learn about maple syrup and meets real-life children who have lesbian parents.
Spellings, often accused of homophobia, wrote that “many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode.”
Spellings was the driving force behind Bush’s widely unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. In 2007 she admitted that the Education Department had been “asleep at the switch” under her administration in overseeing student loan programs, allowing corruption and conflicts of interest to spread.
She disregarded recommendations by the inspector general to hold loan companies accountable for their graft. She later served on the board of directors of the Apollo Group, the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix, a “diploma factory” that paid her more than $300,000. Phoenix took advantage of students and delivered poor results.
Graduation rates were as low as 4 percent during Spellings’ tenure. It even targeted veterans to obtain GI Bill funding. After a federal investigation of Apollo’s practices, the for-profit company laid off 600 workers, closed 115 “campuses” — while its founder received a $5 million “retirement bonus.”
Spellings also served on the board of Ceannate Corporation, a student loan collection agency that profited from students who defaulted on their loans. As head of UNC, she plans to continue serving on the boards of several corporations.
She serves on the board of ClubCorp, a Texas corporation, and on several mutual funds managed by Capital Research and Management Company. She also serves on the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation Advisory Board. Some previous presidents of UNC have held outside board memberships.
On April 7, Spellings sent instructions to all elements of UNC to comply with the controversial Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which requires transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth sex. Students and faculty members on every UNC campus have criticized her for that.
Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, said he would refuse to defend the law, which is discriminatory and violates federal law.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, who has worked with Spellings, believes she could be a good leader at UNC. I hope he is right. But my guess is that her tenure may be brief, particularly if control of the governorship and legislature should change politically after the 2016 elections.
Paul R. Dunn lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at: email@example.com.