Higher education is changing rapidly, and the University of North Carolina system must adapt accordingly, said former U.S. secretary of education Margaret Spellings, who was elected Oct. 23 to be the sixth president of the consolidated UNC system.
Spellings, who served in the George W. Bush administration, is known best for leading the education department’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in K-12 schools. She has less experience in higher education — and doesn’t hold an advanced degree — but says she is well-equipped for the new job and says she expects the faculty and staff of UNC to respond well to her background.
“I’m someone who understands public policy,” Spellings said at an Oct. 23 press conference immediately following her election. “I understand advocacy, I understand how to bring people together around a shared mission, and I have a track record of doing that in my career. So I think there’s plenty of work for everybody, and I look forward to working with the faculty and the state to move toward a shared cause.”
Spellings’ more than three decades of experience in the education field should provide the tools to help her navigate the complexities of the UNC system, several analysts say.
During Spellings’ tenure as secretary of education, she led the president’s Commission on Higher Education, a bipartisan group that included former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. The commission, which opened discussions about reform, was an important step for higher education in the U.S., said Frederick Hess, director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Secretaries of education should be leading that conversation [about cost reform and accreditation], but there is a difference between leading that conversation and trying to get people focused on it, and trying to write federal regulations,” Hess said. “I thought Margaret was on the right side of that line.”
In contrast, Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, believes Spellings’ commission was largely unsuccessful — despite the values it touted.
“While billed as ‘a blueprint for a 21st century higher education system,’ the commission’s final report is a footnote in a decades-long effort to make higher education widely attainable and relevant,” Stoops said.
Even so, Stoops said, Spellings could be a formidable champion for advocating new directions at the 17-campus system.
“Spellings clearly understands the strengths and weaknesses of higher education in the United States,” Stoops said. “The question is whether she can persuade faculty, administrators, and the legislature to embrace and advance her vision for the UNC system.”
There have been several challenges along the way to Spellings’ election, led by an intense protest from board and faculty members who said they were excluded from the presidential selection process. Former Board of Governors chairman John Fennebresque, who stepped down on Oct. 26 from the board following an uproar over his handling of the presidential search, worked diligently to ensure Spellings’ election.
Reporters at Spellings’ press conference asked if the controversy would put a damper on her introduction to UNC’s board, faculty, and staff. Spellings responded that she didn’t think the situation put her at a disadvantage.
“I would ask [the faculty] to give me a chance,” Spellings said. “And as I said, I’m thrilled to be working with them. We have much more in common than we do things that separate us — including serving every single student and citizen in the state to the best of our ability.”
The call to common ground and collaboration is not uncommon for Spellings, said Hess, citing her bipartisan record in the education department. The former secretary also excels in developing shared goals, and in fighting the status quo, qualities that were sought by UNC board members since the presidential search began.
“It seems to me that the president or chancellor of the university is somebody who generally leads internally at the table, taking the university in a new direction,” said Hess. “Spellings is someone who has thought a lot about how universities can position themselves going forward, and I would think that would be pretty welcome leadership.”
Last year, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column, Spellings outlined some of her thoughts about the future of higher education. She emphasized the role of data and technology in American schools, and pointed out that education can be tailored to individual students better when those tools are used properly.
“The only reason we will not reach this better place is if the status quo prevails,” Spellings wrote. “But the market-oriented forces that have changed so much of our world — competition, customization, technology, modern management, and customer focus — are too powerful for even an entrenched educational establishment to resist.”
“These principles also will change our education systems,” Spellings continued. “In turn, those systems will well serve America’s diverse student body, preparing each student for a world that will require them to think creatively, reason through problems and respond to fast-changing circumstances.”
That evolution of the education system is fast becoming reality for UNC, Spellings said at her introductory press conference. And given time, she hopes that learning the needs of UNC’s students, faculty, administrators, and board will help determine the new direction university should take.
“I suspect the biggest challenges to this state are like those we’re seeing in other states — affordability, access and completion,” Spellings said. “Let’s agree what our goals are. Let’s find out how we’re going to keep track of that progress. How are we going to use data, how are we going to use people, how are we going to use time? Students want good value propositions, and want convenience. And we are going to meet those challenges.”
Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.