The University of North Carolina’s governing board honored its former chair Friday, who resigned earlier this week after considerable acrimony and criticism of his leadership during a search for the university system’s new president.

UNC system president Tom Ross (left) and John Fennebresque, UNC Board of Governor, in file photo.

UNC system president Tom Ross (left) and John Fennebresque, UNC Board of Governor, in file photo.

The board unanimously approved a resolution during its monthly meeting acknowledging how John Fennebresque “led the board and the University through numerous controversial issues of vital importance to its future, and did so without compromising his integrity or values.”

Fennebresque, 68, a Charlotte attorney with the McGuireWoods law firm, has served as the UNC board chair since 2014, and had been on the UNC Board of Governors from 1995 to 1999. He returned to the board in 2011, and had just been re-elected by the state Senate to his third term this summer.

He resigned from his post Monday, just three days after the board selected former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as the next president of the 17-campus system. Spellings will begin her job in March. (Click here to read my article from earlier this week about her.)

Fennebresque did not attend Friday’s board meeting.

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North Carolina has a new president of its public university system, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

Spellings, who was hired at a special meeting Friday of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors, will replace Tom Ross, who had led the 17-campus system since 2011 until he was ousted in January for reasons that critics of the board have attributed to politics.

Spellings’ total compensation comes close to $1 million a year, with a $775,000 base salary, $35,000 in moving costs, up to $77,500 in an executive retirement account, an unspecified car allowance, use of the UNC President’s house and a chance to earn a “performance-based compensation” bonus based on metrics to be determined by the Board of Governors, according to information about the five-year contract distributed Friday by the UNC system.

That’s a significant jump from the $600,000 base salary that Ross earned in his last year of service.

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Spellings’ selection was unanimously backed by the board of governors, but the compensation package had two dissenting votes from board members Marty Kotis, a Greensboro real estate businessman, and Thom Goolsby, a Republican Wilmington attorney who previously served in the state Senate.

The search process for the next leader of the UNC system revealed a fractured UNC Board of Governors, with some members calling for the resignation of Chairman John Fennebresque and a last-minute attempt by the state’s Republican-led legislature to require the presentation of multiple candidates.

Faculty also spoke out against the search process as well, after their requests to meet with candidates were rebuffed. A statement issued Thursday indicated that Spellings will face an uphill battle in earning the trust of professors as a result of the bungled search process.

“We have a president who is in a deficit potion as far as trust,” said Spoma Jovanovic, a UNC-Greensboro professor, adding that Spellings will need to work hard to overcome that.

David Green, an N.C. Central University professor, said faculty want to see if Spellings shows a commitment to nurturing the distinct offerings of each of the 17-campuses, and ensuring the UNC system is affordable and accessible to North Carolina residents of all backgrounds, races and income levels.

“This is why we come to work every single day,” Green said.

Spellings’ background

Spellings comes to the top job at UNC without much experience in education or familiarity with North Carolina, but a three-decade career steeped in the world of education policy and Republican politics. She worked in Texas for then-Gov. George W. Bush, and followed him to Washington where she was first his domestic policy advisor and then his education secretary. She leaves a job as the president of George W. Bush Presidential Center for the UNC job.

Spellings holds a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Houston, and holds no advanced degree.

She touched upon her political and policy experience in a brief press conference after Friday’s announcement, noting that she sees faculty as the experts in academia, and she’ll bring skills in navigating the political environment the university system faces.

“I have skills that are different from theirs. I’m not an academic. I’m not a teacher or a researcher. I’m someone who understands public policy-making. 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,” she said.

Spellings also faced some tough questions at a press conference following her election to the presidency.

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Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

It’s a big day for the University of North Carolina system, and the state, with the official selection of the next president of the 17-campus system.

Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. Education Secretary under President George W. Bush, is widely anticipated to be this afternoon’s choice.

She doesn’t have a background in higher education, but does have plenty of experience in navigating political waters.

Want to know more about how we got in this place, and how folks are feeling about this?

Here are some reads from the past year from various outlets to offer some context.

How did it all start? Outgoing UNC president Tom Ross was unexpectedly ousted from his job last January, for reasons surmised to be political but never really fully explained. He’ll stay on to this January, when the new president will take over.

UNC President Tom Ross

UNC President Tom Ross

Ross, a Democrat widely respected in his job leading the state’s university system, had been in the job since 2011, when he was chosen by a UNC Board of Governors made up of appointees from what was a state legislature dominated by Democrats.

Political winds shifted significantly in the state since then, with a Republican takeover that had many in the legislature urging a lot more belt-tightening and more focus on boosting the state’s economy than liberal arts.

Emails later released as part of a public records request (click here to read an N.C. Policy Watch article) showed that many of the board members were caught by surprise by Ross’ dismissal, and didn’t want to see him go.

Turns out that a lot of conservative politicians were happy to see Ross go, as the News & Observer explained in this article leaning on more emails released under public records law.

At the center of Ross’ termination has been John Fennebresque, the chair of the UNC Board of Governors and a Charlotte attorney

known for his brusque style. Here’s an excellent profile of Fennebresque by the Charlotte Observer’s Pam Kelley.

UNC Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque

UNC Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque

The search itself has been hampered by criticism of being too secretive, shutting out faculty and students, as well as members of the board and ignoring wishes of lawmakers.

The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill has broken several stories about this as relations on the board have imploded in recent weeks. Click here and here to read some of her work.

Faculty, who had been pushing from the beginning to meet with the presidential candidates in some capacity, issued a blistering statement yesterday, saying that the new president is going to have a tough time earning the trust of those working for her because of the secretive nature of the search. Not only that, but the professor group also said the UNC Board of Governors has repeatedly ignored advice from faculty, and made a series of decisions leaving the university system and state worse off.

Finally, just who is Margaret Spellings? The Chronicle of Higher Education had this article looking a lot deeper about how those who have worked with and around her feel about what she’ll bring to UNC.

In addition to her career in Texas and Washington, she served on the board of the Apollo Group, the parent company for the for-profit University of Phoenix and criticized a PBS children’s show in 2005 for featuring lesbian characters.

I’ll be at today’s meeting, tweeting about the meeting as well as a press conference with the new president-elect afterwards. Follow me here, @SarahOvaska.


The University of North Carolina’s Faculty Assembly issued a strongly worded statement Friday, saying that the system’s governing board has repeatedly ignored faculty input and pushed forward a secretive process to find a new leader.

(For more about the expected presidential announcement tomorrow, read my story from earlier today here.)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

The Faculty Assembly, which represents professors and faculty and serves in an advisory capacity to the UNC system and UNC Board of Governors, warned that the new president opted not to meet with faculty during the search process, and could face difficulties in gaining the trust of faculty.

“The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of new President to the well-being of the University,” wrote Stephen Leonard and Gabriel Lugo, on behalf of the UNC system Faculty Assembly. “But he or she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and his or her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when s/he was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community.”

The statement also said the board has repeatedly ignored faculty input on admissions, tuition and financial aid and instead adopted “ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state.”

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The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors will name the new leader of the public university system Friday.

The board will meet at 11 a.m. Friday at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill for the “election of a president,” according to an agenda released Tuesday afternoon.

Though technically confidential, the top candidate for the search was leaked and appears to be Margaret Spellings, a former federal education secretary under President George W. Bush who currently heads Bush’s presidential center in Texas.

She appeared at a closed-door meeting the board held last week on the SAS campus in Cary.

If chosen, Spellings would replace outgoing UNC President Tom Ross, who was dismissed from his position for reasons that have yet to be fully explained but are thought to be political in nature. Ross was selected in 2011 by a UNC governing board dominated by appointees from a Democratically-controlled state legislature. Since then, the state legislature switched to Republican control and the 32-member board received their appointments from a Republican-led legislature.

BOG Tentative Agenda 10.23.15 by NC Policy Watch