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Spellings deserved better


Monday, November 12, 2018

Bill Friday was right. Friday, the founding president of the 16 campus University of North Carolina System, fought with then-Gov. Bob Scott in 1971 over the creation of the new system.

Friday recounted the fight in 2010, in an interview with me in front of an audience for NC SPIN’s 600th show. Scott advocated for a 32-member governing board with strong centralized power. Friday agreed the board should have central power but insisted that existing university trustees and campuses have say-so as to how the board was constituted. Gov. Scott, determined to have his way, gave the legislature a plum by telling them they could appoint the new 32-member board if they would pass his plan.

Friday strongly opposed it, but this was one battle he lost. In 1971, and again in 2010, he was adamant this structure had huge disadvantages. He believed the legislature didn’t have the necessary expertise to appoint the board, that just gaining enough votes from the House or Senate didn’t give anyone the qualifications needed to make policy decisions for a statewide university system and that the temptation of injecting politics into university policymaking was too great and certain to occur.

Friday’s prescient forecast has become reality. What we are now witnessing is embarrassing, distracting from the goals of our system and further proof that North Carolina’s governance of all levels of public education needs fixing.

Margaret Spellings was hired after a newly reconstituted Board of Governors surreptitiously fired Tom Ross as president, saying there was no problem with Ross’ performance, they just wanted a change. In other words, the firing was political. The search for a new president was equally controversial. Spellings, who had been George Bush’s secretary of education, came to Chapel Hill amidst this controversy. Legislative leaders didn’t want her and the BOG, which has increasingly become a rubber stamp for the legislature, often exceeds its mandate of setting policy by attempting to run the system.

As relationships grew more tense it was speculated Spellings would fulfill her five-year contract, then leave. The breaking point may have come in September, when Spellings and then-Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette wrote a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, asking the state’s help with increased security because of a potentially dangerous confrontation at a protest planned for Silent Sam the next night. The letter further suggested that Cooper convene the N.C. Historical Commission to determine the future of the statue, as prescribed by law. Fifteen of the 28 members of the board lashed out in criticizing her. Subsequent events proved Spellings’ concerns were justified.

Margaret Spellings just couldn’t take it any longer and looked for an escape, applying to become president of the University of Texas. When she didn’t get that appointment, she decided enough was enough and resigned. Board member Steve Long summed up the situation, “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. 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.”

President Spellings clearly articulated the goals for our universities and took positive steps to lower costs for a college education. She has done a commendable job. Margaret Spellings deserved better. So did Tom Ross. And so do the people of North Carolina.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and creator and host of NC SPIN, a statewide panel discussion that airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday on UNC-TV and 10 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday on the North Carolina Channel.Contact him at www.ncspin.com.


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