Former U.S. Ed. Sec. Spellings chosen as new UNC president, gets big salary package and tackles questions about background

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.

When asked about her affiliation with for-profit universities (Spellings served on an advisory board for the Apollo Group, the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix), she said for-profit education groups filled a gap in helping working adults further their education.

“There is plenty of room for all” types of higher education groups, including for-profit operators, she said.

Spellings was also asked about what she would say to the LGBT community today, given a  2005 letter she wrote as education secretary criticizing a PBS children’s show that had lesbian characters.

“I have no comment about those lifestyles,” Spellings told the reporter, and added that the PBS show concerns had to do with concerns about taxpayer money and not her personal views.

Equality North Carolina, the state’s leading LGBT advocacy group, issued a statement saying it was “deeply troubled” about the selection of Spellings given her past comments.

“Spellings does not have the needs of North Carolina’s LGBT students in her interests,” said Chris Sgro, Equality NC’s director, in a written statement. “In order to help keep the Tar Heel State’s public universities safe, we encourage Margaret Spellings to take a hard look at what it means to be a gay or transgender student in the South.”


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Former U.S. Ed. Sec. Spellings chosen as new UNC president, gets big salary package and tackles questions about background