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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Groucho Marx

Image: Wikipedia

The slow motion train wreck that is the UNC presidential search (be sure to check out this morning’s John Cole editorial cartoon) provoked scathing editorials over the weekend from three of the state’s major newspapers.

This is from the Charlotte Observer:

“Groucho Marx said he didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like him as a member. And we’re not sure we want any UNC system president who’s willing to work for this Board of Governors’ club.

The circus around the University of North Carolina’s search for a new president made national headlines Friday. It came complete with an emergency meeting that may have broken state law, calls for chairman John Fennebresque’s head, allegations that a leading candidate is ‘fruit from a poisonous tree,’ and a momentary cameo appearance by a national figure whose presence was supposed to be kept secret.

In a sane world, the UNC Board of Governors would spend its time lobbying for adequate funding, advocating for faculty, staff and students, supporting a strong system president and generally striving to keep the University of North Carolina among the top public higher education systems in the nation.

In the real world, they fire an esteemed president, botch the handling of it, insert politics into decision-making, then make the search for a new president a hot mess of infighting and finger-pointing.”

From Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“The fiasco this search has become was born out of political motivations to fire Ross, a Democrat, by a board now overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans but not by experience. As the search has gone on and been hobbled by infighting, the board’s reputation, already damaged by the Ross firing, has been wounded. The absurdity of the situation is that the struggle isn’t between legislative leaders and some rogue board of holdover Democrats. The board that Berger and others are so at odds with is the one they handpicked.

The board should call off this bungled effort before it hurts the university itself. It should ask Ross to stay in office and take time to reconsider its decision. And when the time comes to select a president, one hopes board members will be sobered by the mistakes they’ve made. The 32 spots on the Board of Governors were viewed as perhaps the most prestigious such positions in the state. But now … now they’re close to becoming a punchline.”

And this is from the Greensboro News & Record: Read More


The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors will meet Friday for an emergency meeting to discuss the search for a new president of the 17-campus campus.

UNCsystemThe meeting, scheduled for 1 p.m. on the SAS campus in Cary, is technically open to the public, but the brief agenda indicates a briefing by a presidential search committee and much of the discussion will happen behind closed doors.

It could mean the full board is ready to select their new president, or a chance to discuss the final candidate or candidates.

The 11-member presidential search committee has met nine times in the last month, all in closed session and presumably to either interview final candidates or discuss candidates.

The UNC Board of Governors is pressed to find a replacement for its current president Tom Ross after the board moved to get rid of Ross last January for reasons that have not been fully explained, other than a general desire for a new direction. Ross, a former Davidson College president and Superior Court judge, has been at the helm of the state’s public university system since 2011, when he was selected by a governing board then dominated by appointees from a legislature controlled by Democrats. Since Ross’ hire, the legislature has switched to Republican control, and all 32 members currently owe the appointments to that Republican majority.

Friday’s emergency meeting is a significant move – whether or not a final choice will be announced coming out of Friday’s meeting, it’s the first time the full board has met to discuss the search for a new UNC president.

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The state House of Representatives tacked on a provision last night to a bill requiring public disclosure of three finalists for the ongoing search of the University of North Carolina’s next president.


The amendment, proposed by state Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, was added on to a bill that would cap the terms members of the  UNC Board of Governors could serve. (Click here to read more about the term limits, and scroll down to watch video of Martin’s comments.)

It passed the House handily, 97 to 11.

Update,: The House, in another amendment, opted to strip the transparency measures out of the bill late Wednesday night. It also allowed the board to “appoint an interim President” for the UNC president.  

The bill now limiting the term limits of board members but without transparency measures went on to pass the House and Senate, and is now headed to McCrory’s desk. 

In addition to the posting of resumes and names of the candidates 10 days before any final decision, the amendment (click here to read) would also now require holding a public meeting about the final candidates.

A second vote on the proposal is scheduled for when the House convenes again at 11 a.m., and then Senate lawmakers would need to give their okay to the bill before it would head to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk to be signed.

The UNC Board of Governors is in the midst of a search for a new system president after dismissing current president Tom Ross last January, for reasons that have not been fully explained but speculation has pointed to political motivations.

Ross, a Democrat, had led the state’s higher education system since 2011, but the UNC Board of Governors he reported to changed drastically during his tenure, after Republicans took over both chambers of the legislature soon after Ross took the job.

The 32 members of the UNC Board of Governors now consist entirely of appointees from a Republican-controlled legislature.

Up until now, the search for the next UNC president has been cloaked in secrecy, despite faculty requests to open up the process and allow final candidates to meet with members of the faculty.

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