Margaret Spellings addresses education issues a year after UNC exit

Margaret Spellings officially left her position as President of the UNC System one year ago.

Just last month Spellings — now president and CEO of the non-profit Texas 2036 — had a public conversation on “The Future of Higher Education” at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her talk touched on public investment in higher education, the importance of access to education and a number of other issues with which UNC continues to struggle even as it continues to search for her replacement.


In conversation with UTEP College of Education Dean Clifton Tanabe, Spellings tackled Pew Research Center and Gallup data that shows views of higher education sharply divided along partisan lines.

“The data says that about half of Americans used to think education was part of the solution — that it was a great American institution and virtue,” Spelling said. “Now, more than half of the people think that it’s part of the problem in our country.”

The study actually said about half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four-in-ten (38%) said they are having a negative impact.

“The share of Americans saying colleges and universities have a negative effect has increased by 12 percentage points since 2012,” the Pew Center wrote in an August 2019 summary of its data. “The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican. From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive.”

Spellings emphasized getting students at the K-12 level interested in college, particularly those who may be the first generation in their family to attend.

That’s a theme Spellings has returned to throughout her career, from the No Child Left Behind Act during her tenure as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush to programs to the  NC Promise tuition program during her time at UNC. During that program’s initial phase tuition at Elizabeth City State UniversityUniversity of North Carolina at Pembroke and  Western Carolina University  was dropped to $500 per semester.

Though the program had the support of N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), it was one of a number of moves during Spellings’ presidency of the UNC System that earned her ire from conservatives who found her not sufficiently ideological in the role.

Spellings ultimately resigned her position at UNC after three years amid a series of simmering tensions and public conflicts with the UNC Board of Governors over everything from the Silent Sam Confederate monument to the proper role of the board in relation to the system president.

The UNC System has received  “several dozen” applications for in its search for UNC System president, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey said last week.

The search committee met last week to begin reviewing them.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper is scheduled to leave his interim position in June. If a new president hasn’t been found by then, Ramsey said, the board will have to deal with that situation then.


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