University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings is about to leave her job in Chapel Hill, saddling her successor with a daunting task: wrangling a perfect storm of campus and state politics.
On Dec. 14, while Spellings gave her final remarks to the UNC Board of Governors, dozens of demonstrators gathered in the rain to loudly protest Silent Sam, the Confederate monument toppled by protesters in August. The statue is in storage awaiting its fate. The board was set to make a ruling this month, but members announced they need more time to weigh options.
More than 100 police officers stood guard outside UNC’s Center For School Leadership Development while the crowd chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and other slogans. One protester was detained for obstructing police. Law enforcers were expecting more trouble, but the rain staved off the crowd, a handful of officers told Carolina Journal.
The setting is similar to that which greeted Spellings during her first year in office, as she faced a crowd frenzy of objections over her hiring.
Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for Spellings, who leaves in January. She has established a new brand and strategic plan for the university. She has overseen big tuition cuts at a handful of UNC schools.
She has also weathered hurricanes, lawsuits, and House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill.”
Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, at times said the “crisis management mode” she experienced at UNC made her feel as though she never really left Washington. Balancing long-and-short-term priorities was always a challenge.
“Major in the majors, and minor in the minors,” Spellings often said during interviews, pushing policy decisions above political ones.
Sometimes those lines were blurred. Other times they weren’t.
Spellings built an administration of steely diplomacy. She opened doors to the press, answering and cloaking questions with the ease that comes from years in national politics. She visited with students and faculty. She worked with other state educators as part of the My Future NC Commission, looking for ways to smooth transitions between all stages of public education.
But politics fray progress, and, as Spellings has said repeatedly of her decision to leave UNC, “all leaders are for a time.” Everyone from liberals to conservatives at some point have taken issue with decisions made by Spellings’ administration.
When Spellings leaves in January, the situation will resemble the one which greeted North Carolina three years ago. One that, on Jan. 15, will become the responsibility of interim President-Elect Dr. William Roper, the current CEO of UNC Health Care.
Roper, who will take the reins of a university under fire for its handling of Silent Sam, must step to the helm of an administration that acts as a political emissary between UNC’s Board of Governors and all 17 campuses.
Spellings faced a similar challenge in 2016, when the firing of her predecessor, Tom Ross, caused an uproar over lack of transparency in board dealings. On taking office, Spellings sought to boost transparency by instating video broadcasts and public comment sessions at regular board meetings.
But protests, which were disruptive and even violent, took months to wane. The cycle spiraled, with demonstrations growing disorganized and eventually petering out. Spellings eventually seemed to win over many faculty, students, and administrators who at first were opposed to her presidency.
Roper’s professional background may provide some advantages as he builds out his priorities as interim president.
Unlike Spellings, a Texas native and Washington insider, the 70-year-old is no newcomer to North Carolina, having joined UNC Chapel Hill in 1997 as the dean of the School of Public Health. He became CEO of UNC Health care and UNC’s medical school dean in 2004.
But Roper still must navigate board politics in a room full of former state legislators and lobbyists. Harry Smith, the board’s chairman, has shown a hands-on approach while dealing with Spellings’ administration — and it’s led to some strain.
In March 2017, Spellings looked ready to lead UNC to the end of her five-year contract. There was work left to be done. Spellings was excited to discuss it, even stating to CJ that she had no plans to leave her job. At the time, she was teamed with Lou Bissette, former chairman of the UNC board. Bissette was publicly congenial and deferential toward Spellings and her administration.
Spellings and Smith have appeared tense and aloof at most meetings since he took Bissette’s place in July. Though Smith has praised Spellings and her work during meetings and press conferences, public exchanges between the two appear more cool and calculated. Smith called on Bissette Dec. 14 to read the chairman’s report, a resolution praising Spellings and naming her “President Emerita” of UNC.
CJ reached out to Roper for comment on his own relationship with Smith and the board, but he was unavailable for an interview.
Smith praised Roper in October, calling him an outstanding and easy choice to lead UNC while the board seeks a new president.
Roper, who will serve as interim indefinitely, has sidestepped questions about whether he would consider taking on the role full time. He was elected to the position just one week after Spellings announced her resignation in October.
When asked what advice she’s passed to Roper, Spellings was quick to answer with the mantra she’s carried since her first day in office.
“Major in the majors. … Work with the chairman and the [board] officers to build relationships. Work through the issues like Silent Sam.“