News: CJ Exclusives

Spellings Highlights Transparency, Accountability at BOG Meeting

New UNC system president promises inclusiveness as board says it will allow more public input at meetings

UNC President Margaret Spellings talks with Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette Friday during a March 2016 meeting. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
UNC President Margaret Spellings talks with Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette Friday during a March 2016 meeting. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

Transparency will be a top focus for the UNC system’s administration in the coming year, President Margaret Spellings said Friday during her first official presentation before the Board of Governors.

At the Fayetteville State University campus, the former U.S. secretary of education in the George W. Bush Administration emphasized the importance of public trust, and assured members of the faculty and student body that their input will be valued under her leadership.

“In my tour [of the campuses], and [in] day-to-day operations, I want to see us have long and lasting partnerships — and even friendships — with all stakeholders, from students and faculty, to legislators, to civil rights and faith leaders,” Spellings said.

Questions about a lack of transparency were raised last year following the abrupt firing of former President Tom Ross, and the controversial hiring of Spellings as his replacement. The conflict surrounding those proceedings led to the resignation of former Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque, and sparked an effort to educate BOG members on proper use of North Carolina’s open meetings law.

The board’s efforts to increase transparency started with today’s meeting, which included establishing live stream video of all open-session board meetings, opening public discussion forums allowing members of the public to offer suggestions to board members, and communicating expectations for decorum at all meetings, board Chairman Lou Bissette said.

UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor Altha Cravey, a Faculty Forward Network member whose protest against Spellings disrupted a board meeting last December, said the current BOG had not satisfied critics’ concerns.

“I’m concerned that the UNC system is going in the wrong direction,” Cravey said at a protest Friday before the board meeting. “We’ve seen that in the last year. We’ve seen Tom Ross get fired, we’ve seen [academic] centers close with no citizen input, no faculty voice, no student voice — and in fact now we’re seeing centers being opened that are just being funded by millionaires and that are opposed by faculty.”

“[The board] does not have a public comment,” Cravey continued. “They have not offered the opportunity for student voice, or for faculty voice. This is the problem … they’re actually excluding people from their decision making, as we also saw in their closed meetings when they had the [presidential] search process going.”

Rowdy demonstrations at previous board meetings have raised concerns about violations of the state’s open meetings law, Bissette said. He hopes to solve that problem by articulating guidelines in the coming days to inform attendees of the university’s expectations for acceptable behavior.

“We welcome everyone to our meetings, and we invite you to this [new] format where you can make your comments to the board,” Bissette said. “This has not been done in the past, but will be done in the future — so I’m hoping that we will not have the kind of disruptive behavior we’ve had in the past.”

Spellings, who said she plans to gather input from everyone within the system, said she welcomes comment from Faculty Forward and other groups, given use of proper channels.

“We believe it’s appropriate to have a public forum where all voices can be heard, where they can present to the board and me, and where we can receive those comments,” Spellings told Carolina Journal. “Right now we don’t have such a forum, and so I think that’s a good first step.”

In addition to ensuring more transparency within the system, Spellings also said she plans to tackle issues of access, affordability, student success, and economic impact during her first 100 days in office.

“I intend to utilize the talent of the General Administration team,” Spellings said. “We must have the right people doing the right things. We must dissolve silos and encourage collaboration, transparency, and effectiveness.”

Under Spellings’ direction the Boston Consulting Group, a multinational business management firm, is conducting a study of all UNC operations. The firm will report to her with recommendations.

“After considering the report, I plan to act quickly to institute the changes we need to be fully effective, and to accomplish our goals,” Spellings said.

Working with the General Assembly to ensure university funding and other resources is also crucial, she said.

“We can achieve some early legislative wins, and performance based pay is at the top of my list,” Spellings said. “In order to attract world-class talent to our institutions, we need to offer competitive compensation.”

“I thank all of you for your support to make this system the premier and preeminent higher education system in our nation, and I know we can get it done together,” she concluded.