Margaret Spellings, the newly elected president of the North Carolina public university system, making comments at the Oct. 23 meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome/AP)

In recent years the University of North Carolina system — long considered one of the best in the country — has sustained massive budget cuts by the state legislature as well as efforts to force some academics to change their priorities. Now there is a new challenge: the appointment of Margaret Spellings, education secretary under President George W. Bush, as system president. The move — by a Republican-dominated governing board — is being attacked by students and faculty as a political move that will damage the state.

Spellings was chosen last month to run — starting in March 2016 — the system of 16 universities, with 222,000 students. She will earn enough to put her in the top range of college presidents: a  $775,000 base salary for each of five years in a contract that also gives her deferred compensation of $77,500 annually and potential performance bonuses, and use of a presidential home.

She was selected by the system’s Board of Governors, which had forced out Tom Ross, who was tapped as president in 2010 when Democrats controlled the legislature. Ross — who had a long academic career, unlike Spellings — was believed to have been opposed to the budget cuts and other priority changes being sought at UNC.

The News & Observer reported in August on e-mails showing that conservatives expressed delight when the board voted on Jan. 16 to oust Ross (who earned a base salary of $600,000 in his final contract year):

That day, several supportive emails and messages arrived in the inbox of board Chairman John Fennebresque. “John – this is certainly good news,” wrote U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Republican from Raleigh. “I know you will find a great replacement. Best, g.”

The selection of Spellings was so controversial, even within the governing board, that its chairman, John Fennebresque, resigned a few days later. According to NC Policy Watch, “just three days after she was hired, the chair of the UNC Board of Governors announced he was resigning from the board, following calls from his colleagues to step aside as a result of the acrimonious search process and the jumbled dismissal months earlier of Spellings’ predecessor, Tom Ross.” Fennebresque had, NC Policy Watch reported, said with tears in his eyes after Spellings was appointed that he  hoped she would prove to be a great UNC leader.

Spellings oversaw the initial implementation of No Child Left Behind when she was education secretary under Bush, from 2005 to 2009, and she currently is the head of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. While education secretary, she convened the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which in 2006 released a report with controversial recommendations, including a call for colleges and universities to focus on training students for the workforce and supporting research with commercial applications. She also served on the board of directors for the Apollo Group, the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix, which paid her more than $300,000 for her involvement.

The choice of Spellings has sparked savage criticism by students and faculty, who have said that she is not a suitable president for the vaunted UNC system and that she was chosen as a political move because she is likely to accept changes in UNC priorities much easier than Ross would have. Her résumé was one target, as was a statement she made shortly after being asked how much politics would play a role in her leadership of the UNC system. She responded:

“You know, these are all political settings. That’s how we make public policy in this setting and in this state. And in a political setting that we call a democracy, obviously. … Our publics understand that, too — that our leaders, our legislators and funders and stakeholders are bought into it and that we’re moving out around that shared vision, so you bet, that’s what makes it fun. That’s what provides input. That’s what allows us to make course corrections where needed. So you bet, I think it’s a fantastic way to make policy, is in a political setting.”

The Daily Tar Heel, the UNC-Chapel Hill student newspaper, quoted students expressing their distress. For example:

“If (the board) had considered our concerns, which is the protection of students of marginalized identities, they would have made more efforts to choose a presidential candidate who is more in-line with what the students’ needs and concerns are,” said UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Ebony Watkins, who said she was speaking on behalf of an unofficial coalition of concerned students.

An op-ed in the News & Observer by two academics in the UNC system was tougher. Altha Cravey,  associate professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Robert Siegel, associate professor of English at East Carolina University, wrote:

Although our fellow university professors have become used to the UNC Board of Governors’ wrong-headed priorities when it comes to higher education in North Carolina, the board’s chaotic scramble to hire former Bush administration bureaucrat Margaret Spellings as system president represents a disturbing new low.

Spellings’ selection process was so rocky that Board Chairman John Fennebresque was forced to resign the following Monday. But in the aftermath of the board’s rushed and controversial decision, Margaret Spellings’ résumé raises serious questions about her commitment to UNC’s tradition of an affordable college education…

UNC needs a president who will help the university system continue to give students the best education possible while avoiding unnecessary tuition hikes. Unfortunately, Spellings’ background of supporting for-profit colleges who prey on students – and then profiting off those same students when they default on their loans – suggests that she and the Board of Governors have very distinct priorities.

Concern was also expressed about an incident when she was secretary of education, in which she asked PBS to refund federal funding because there were four gay characters on an animated television show called “Buster the Bunny.” At the same Oct. 23 press conference where she talked about politics, she said she was concerned about “how we use taxpayer dollars,” and referring to gays, she said, “I’m not going to comment on those lifestyles.”

The UNC system has seen its state per-student funding slashed by some 25 percent since 2008. There have also been efforts to try to change some of the system’s priorities. For example, earlier this year, a UNC Board of Governors’ working group issued a draft report on the university’s institutes and centers recommending closing three centers on university campuses, including Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The center does not receive funding directly from the state, and at the time of the recommendation, John Charles “Jack” Boger, dean of the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, issued a statement saying that the working group “rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor.”