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Big scoop from N&O: Margaret Spellings top choice for UNC president job, calls for chair of UNC Board of Governor to resign

Jane Stancill of the (Raleigh) News & Observer has a major scoop [1] this morning about the search for the new president of the University of North Carolina.

Not only has the presidential search committee settled on a finalist, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, but infighting on the board appears to have crested over, with calls from fellow board members for current chairman John Fennebresque to resign.

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

And the state’s top two Republican lawmakers, N.C. Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger Jr. and N.C House Speaker Tim Moore, are upset the board may be trying to circumvent a bill currently awaiting the governor’s signature [2] that requires the top three candidates to be considered before the full board.

From Stancill’s article [1]:

The UNC Board of Governors has been called to an emergency meeting Friday to get an update on the UNC presidential search and to talk with leading candidate Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary in George W. Bush’s administration, according to three people with direct knowledge of the search.

The meeting has touched off a storm with leaders in the legislature, who wrote to board members Thursday, saying that the gathering could run afoul of new legislation that requires the search committee to bring forward three candidates to the full board for discussion. That bill passed the legislature late last month but has not been signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

“While the bill has not yet been signed by the Governor, calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed as the Board’s attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina prior to the bill becoming law,” said the letter, signed by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Republican House Speaker Tim Moore. “Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process by which at least a few members of the Board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and procedural due process.”

The lawmakers wrote that the search “should not be rushed or made without the thoughtful consideration of all members of the Board.”

Spellings is the only candidate scheduled to meet with the full board Friday.

The lawmakers’ letter caught the attention Thursday night of some board members. At least two called for the resignation of John Fennebresque, chairman of the Board of Governors and a member of the search committee.

“We are now in a situation where it does not matter who the candidate is at this point, given the complete breakdown of trust the board, the legislature and, I believe, the general public has in your leadership,” wrote Thom Goolsby, a board member and former legislator. “You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow. No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.”

You can read the entire piece here [1].

Stancill obtained emails and letters sent after an emergency meeting of the full UNC Board of Governors was called late Thursday morning [3] for today. State open meeting laws typically require 48-hours public notice, but the meeting was classified as an “emergency,” likely to circumvent the public notice rules.

The board is looking for new president after it dismissed current UNC President Tom Ross [4], who had led the system since 2011, in January, for reasons yet to be fully explained but speculated to have political origins. Ross is a Democrat and the current 32 members of the UNC Board of Governors is dominated by Republicans who all received their appointments from a Republican-led state legislature.

Spellings served as the federal education secretary under President George W. Bush, and was a driving force behind the controversial “No Child Left Behind” laws that sought accountability in public schools but has since seen many of its measures rolled back.

She is currently the head of the George W. Bush Presidential Center [5].

Spellings also served on the board of directors [6] in 2012 for the Apollo Group, the company that owns the for-profit University of Phoenix.

The emergency meeting for the UNC Board of Governors is scheduled for 1 p.m. on the SAS campus in Cary. We’ll offer an update here if that changes.