News: CJ Exclusives

As Spellings departs, she says her time to lead UNC has come and gone

UNC President Margaret Spellings (left), and former UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette, at a 2016 board meeting. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
UNC President Margaret Spellings (left), and former UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette, at a 2016 board meeting. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

The leader of the University of North Carolina System announced she is leaving her post after just 2 1/2 years on the job.

UNC President Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration, offered her resignation Oct. 26, 2018. Her departure will be effective March 1, 2019. Spellings was elected in October 2015, and officially took office March 1, 2016. She signed a five-year contract with the university.

She is the 21st president of the University of North Carolina and the sixth president since the UNC System was unified in 1971.

“All leaders are for a time. When I was hired three years ago the board and I believed that I was the right leader and I have worked hard to meet the expectations that have been set. I am proud of the people around me and of the work we have done,” Spellings said Oct. 26.

“But, times change and those changes demand new leaders and new approaches. I will leave North Carolina proud of the contributions made during my tenure that build on the work of those that came before and that lay the foundation for the work ahead.”

Spellings will receive her regular salary of $775,000, plus benefits, until her exit March 1, 2019. She also will be paid $500,000 “reflecting acceleration of research leave provided for in the existing employment contract and projected performance bonus.” She’ll also be reimbursed as much as $35,000 for relocation expenses.

Spellings will not be allowed to recruit employees, but may begin service on an outside board beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

UNC System staffers blocked access to the meeting room doors and later a hallway outside the room while the board went into closed session to discuss the situation. Journalists weren’t allowed to use the press room, which also is close to the boardroom.

The announcement follows months of turmoil among members of the UNC Board of Governors — a scene much like that which surrounded Spellings’ election. John Fennebresque, the board’s former chairman, resigned abruptly after butting heads with his colleagues during the search for a new university leader.

Early in 2015, former UNC President Tom Ross, a Democrat, was forced from his job by the mostly Republican board. He served until Jan. 3, 2016. Fennebresque said the decision had nothing to do with politics, The Charlotte Observer reported. Fennebresque instead cited a need for “another leader who might bring other assets.” 

Accusations of muddied dealings and a lack of transparency plagued the board for months after.

The problems soured Spellings’ welcome. She faced intense protests from faculty and students before she even settled into her Chapel Hill office. Some protests were respectful, while others were disruptive and even violent. It was a tumultuous period, but suspicion and distrust seemed to dissolve, Spellings told reporters earlier this year.

Spellings also said she was “pleased, but not satisfied,” with the accomplishments of her administration. During her first year in office, Spellings, along with the UNC Board of Governors, developed a university policy to increase affordability and accessibility for students. The president also has overseen implementation of N.C. Promise, a program cutting in-state tuition to $500 a semester at three UNC schools.

“Margaret is disappointed, of course, but also relieved, in a way, and ready to move forward,” a source close to Spellings who did not want to be identified, told Carolina Journal.

Spellings instigated her own resignation, she told reporters at an Oct. 26. press conference. The president appeared emotional, subtly masking tears.

Spellings worked with former BOG Chairman Lou Bissette during her first two years on the job. Outwardly, the two shared an amiable relationship, laughing and chatting during public meetings. Bissette left the post earlier this year. His successor, Harry Smith, has verbally supported Spellings during meetings and press conferences, but interactions between the two appeared stilted.

And while Smith has insisted the board continues to be united, a series of conflicts — mainly played out in private — have led to questions about tensions among factions of the board and Spellings.

Discord has colored Spellings’ presidency.

During September 2017, board members sent a letter to Bissette and Spellings complaining of failed communication and and lack of collaboration.

In an op-ed column published late last year, Bissette wrote, “We must operate as a united board, focused on providing oversight, ensuring accountability and setting system policy while allowing our president, chancellors, faculty and staff to do their job.”

The message didn’t sit well with members such as former state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.

Spellings in March told Carolina Journal the board isn’t as divided as the public may think.

“This is a board that’s interested in operations. They’re interested in how we use money. They’re interested in how … we really leverage the system platform. There are a lot of business people on the board, and they ask us tough questions, and we ring the bell and answer their good and justifiable questions. I’m looking forward to working with them.”

The board will immediately begin its search for an interim president.