Margaret Spellings’ Exit

In the fall of 2018 Margaret Spellings abruptly announced her resignation as UNC System President three years before her contract was set to expire. Her departure marked a new low for BOG dysfunction.

“I do believe that the leadership of our board has gotten too involved in the management of the university in certain cases and that’s why Margaret Spellings is leaving. And that’s a tremendous loss. I feel like we’ve lost a great leader, and if she had been given greater authority, full authority to run the university, she would stay. She did love this job. She told me.” – Steve Long. 

Spellings entered as UNC System President in 2015 after a Republican-dominated BOG fired UNC System President Tom Ross, a Democrat. Ross’ departure was perceived as a politically motivated ouster by a BOG that, by 2015 standards, was deeply conservative. After the announcement of Ross’ firing, BOG Chairman John Fennebresque received congratulatory emails from prominent conservative congressmen and calls from Senate Leader Phil Berger and Sen. Bob Rucho. According to the News and Observer, Art Pope also called to discuss the development.

The BOG then recruited Spellings, a longtime Republican and former Education Secretary for George W. Bush who was at the helm of No Child Left Behind. Spellings’ appointment was a deeply controversial political pivot deemed a “disturbing new low.” Critics pointed to a report attached to Spellings’ name that was “one of the first proponents of performance-based funding in higher education.” She was also on the Board of Directors for the Apollo Group, which lists the University of Phoenix as its “Flagship Institution.” Faculty and alumnae of the UNC System condemned the decision that had no clear reasoning beyond politics. David Powers requested Fennebresque step down in the aftermath and just a few days later, he resigned. Powers himself said Margaret Spellings could be “an excellent choice — indeed, maybe even that ‘game changer’ that we all dream of.” At the time the UNC System was reeling from massive budget cuts and a national academic-athletic scandal resulting in one of the most wide scale investigations of academic fraud in NCAA history.

All signs pointed to a friendly relationship between a conservative BOG and Spellings. However, due to persistent turnover, only two people currently sitting on the BOG were there at the time of her hiring (when the BOG was still 28 members).

In 2017 Republican legislators appointed a cohort of hardline right-wing ideologues (such as Tom Fetzer) who were not satisfied with Spellings’ conservative credentials.

Conflict came to an apex that summer when Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette, and the UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper that detailed concerns about Silent Sam and public safety after escalating protests after Charlottesville. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission and “take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.” Cooper responded and told UNC leaders that they could remove the monument if there was “imminent threat.”

The letter catalyzed a swift response from multiple BOG members, 15 of whom signed a letter that criticized Spellings for her and Board Chairman Lou Bissette’s handling of the issue. The letter claimed that leaders should have consulted the entire board and said it was “wholly unacceptable” that Spellings and Bissette made a unilateral decision. The board also lamented Cooper’s “political manipulation” of the situation which further escalated tensions.

“The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated.”

-excerpt from the letter, emailed Aug. 22 by board member Tom Fetzer, lobbyist and former mayor of Raleigh.

The letter was signed by the following current Board members:

Alex Mitchell
Bob Rucho
David Powers
Harry Smith
Jim Holmes
Kellie Blue
Mary Kotis
Mike Williford
Pearl Burris-Floyd
Philip Byers
Randy Ramsey
Thom Goolsby
Tom Fetzer
Wendy Murphy

Following that episode, the BOG split into pro- and anti-Spellings camps. The anti-Spellings camp then attempted to push reforms that curtailed her power, reorganized her staff, and even considered moving the UNC System headquarters out of Chapel Hill. This trend of “obsessive micromanagement,” meddling, and infighting brought university affairs to a standstill.

To be fair, not all BOG members were thrilled with Spellings’ resignation. Steve Long lamented the direction of the board. In an unusual public rebuke, Long stated: “I do believe that the leadership of our board has gotten too involved in the management of the university in certain cases and that’s why Margaret Spellings is leaving. And that’s a tremendous loss. I feel like we’ve lost a great leader, and if she had been given greater authority, full authority to run the university, she would stay. She did love this job. She told me.”

“[Smith] does not have a full-time job. He treats the UNC system as his full-time job, and he supplanted [Spellings] in managing the university [system]. He would call her five times a day, text or email 20 times a day. I mean, this is just not what a president of an organization wants from their board chair. And she had had it, and just went back to Texas.”

Sources

Steve Long, in a WUNC Interview.

Spellings’ resignation does not inspire confidence in the BOG’s ability to govern. As one editorial stated, whoever is brave enough to apply for the job of System President will be stepping into a “snake pit.”