Yet Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary, has found herself drawn into the debate over North Carolina’s so-called bathroom law. HB2 — passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) — mandates, among other provisions, that people use public bathrooms corresponding to the gender stated on their birth certificates. Opponents view the law as discriminatory to the transgender community, while supporters say it protects the privacy and safety of all bathroom users. The debate has cast an intense national spotlight on the state and the UNC system.
The Justice Department has sued to block the law. In August, a federal judge ruled that the UNC system cannot enforce the law’s bathroom restrictions against three individual plaintiffs who had also filed suit, but that case remains pending in U.S. District Court.
In September, the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference announced they would move various athletic championship events out of the state. That was a major blow to public universities that prize their blend of academics and athletics.
After the ACC announcement, Spellings said in a statement: “As we have said many times, UNC institutions do not discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, and we are fully committed to being open and welcoming to individuals of all backgrounds. We remain caught in the middle on this issue and welcome a speedy resolution by the court.”
In an interview over a turkey burger lunch late last month, Spellings summed up her view on HB2: “It’s an unenforceable law. What would they have us do? Post guards at the bathrooms? Ask students for birth certificates?”
Spellings, who took office on March 1, served as education secretary during President George W. Bush’s second term and was known for championing the federal school accountability law called No Child Left Behind. Her appointment to lead UNC, with an annual salary of $775,000, was controversial.
Some faculty and student protesters questioned whether her background fit the profile of the leader they wanted for public universities in the Tar Heel State. She had served on the board of directors of the Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston but does not hold a master’s degree or doctorate. Her roots are in Texas and Michigan, not North Carolina.
Spellings said in the interview that she hopes her statements on HB2 and other actions since taking office have eased the concerns of skeptics. “For people who made assumptions about me, on both sides, those assumptions were challenged,” she said.
She said she wants to focus attention on expanding access and raising completion rates. She cited newly approved budget legislation that aims to reduce tuition at three universities within the system to $500 per semester for in-state students, starting in fall 2018. The schools are Western Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University. Tuition for out-of-state students at those schools would be set at $2,500 per semester. Increased state funding would offset lost tuition revenue.
Known as an advocate for increased accountability in higher education during the Bush administration, Spellings said she wants to focus on raising graduation rates for students from all backgrounds and containing student debt. But she said universities should not all be held to the same targets for progress: What works for UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s premier public flagships, is not necessarily appropriate for Appalachian State or North Carolina Central.
“We’ll have customized sets of goals,” she said.
Spellings said she has been astounded to discover layer upon layer of what she called “knucklehead” inefficiency within the UNC system.
She said she is seeking to streamline management in other ways and give chancellors at the 17 campuses more leeway to do their jobs without needless intrusion from the central office. “Let’s give them the latitude and autonomy to be successful,” she said.