The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors is poised to select the next president of the UNC system tomorrow, capping off a tumultuous search to find a new leader for the state’s prized university system.
The search to replace Tom Ross, a Democrat who was unexpectedly dismissed last January by a Republican-dominated governing board, has been anything but typical.
Friday’s vote will likely usher in Margaret Spellings, a former U.S Education Secretary under President George W. Bush, reported to be the top candidate for the job.
The new president of the UNC system, whether it’s Spellings or another unknown candidate, will take over as acrimony lingers over how the search was conducted, which was criticized for being overly secretive and shutting out faculty, the public and some members of the governing board.
Search process criticized
In the last month, discord broke out among the 32-members of the UNC Board of Governors about the direction of the search, with several publicly calling for the resignation of chair John Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney with a brusque manner.
Marty Kotis, a Greensboro board member, said Fennebresque pushed forward with getting rid of Ross without the knowledge of most board members. Kotis said he’s primarily worried about the lack of the transparency with the presidential search, and the omission of input from faculty and students.
“He has not been a consensus builder,” Kotis said about Fennebresque last week in comments to N.C. Policy Watch.
The state’s top two Republican lawmakers also raised concerns  that the board was ignoring the intentions of a recently-passed bill, which requires the top three candidates to be considered by the full board and not just one candidate pre-selected by a search committee. Gov. Pat McCrory has said he won’t decide  if he’ll sign the bill until Oct. 30, the last day he can do so.
Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington attorney and outspoken former Republican state senator who joined the UNC Board of Governors this summer, accused Fennebresque of endangering the UNC system itself with the way the search was conducted.
“We are now in a situation where it does not matter who the candidate is at this point, given the complete breakdown of trust the board, the legislature and, I believe, the general public has in your leadership,” Goolsby wrote, according to the News & Observer . “You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow. No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.”
Faculty are also unhappy. In a statement published this morning, Faculty Assembly chair Stephen Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, and chair-elect Gabriel Lugo of UNC-Wilmington blasted the board for shutting out faculty from decisions about firing Tom Ross, the subsequent search for his successor and other recent decisions.
From the statement :
Regrettably, for the better part of a half decade, the UNC Board of Governors has repeatedly failed to follow its own stated principles of good governance.
The UNC Faculty Assembly has faithfully advised the Board on best practices regarding admissions, tuition, financial aid, leadership appointment processes, curricular design, research and freedom of inquiry, and processes of peer review, yet the Board has repeatedly refused to acknowledge – let alone discuss – points of counsel they have been offered. Instead, they have frequently promulgated ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state.
The failure of the Board to seek the advice and counsel of the staff and faculty is both shortsighted and troubling. No student attends our campuses to be taught, no funding agency or organization provides grants of research support, and no business, governmental entity, or civic organization has come to our institutions seeking public service expertise, because of the teaching, research and service achievements of the Board of Governors or the President of the University. Yet the Board continues to act without the advice and counsel of the constituencies whose expertise they need to effectively govern the institution.
Faculty Forward, a separate group pushing for increased rights of non-tenured faculty and affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, launched a petition  this week criticizing the anticipated selection of Spellings as the next UNC system.
A Spellings presidency?
Spellings, if selected, will come into the job without the strong North Carolina connections or business background that some board members indicated they wanted at the outset of the search.
She’ll be taking over a 17-campus system that enrolls more than 220,000 students, and is a central piece of the state’s economy, as well as its identity. The system, though it receives higher proportions of state funding than many other state systems, has also weathered years of deep budget cuts since the start of the recession in 2008. With the drop in state funding has come steadily increasing tuition with some questioning whether the constitutional obligation  to provide North Carolina residents with a free higher education “as far as practicable.”
Spellings’ background primarily rests in the world of politics and policy. She worked closely with Bush for much of his political career in Texas and, later, in the White House. She served as his domestic policy advisor before becoming education secretary.
That connection to the Bush family continues today, and she’s currently the president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center . She also held jobs following the Bush Administration working as a senior advisor at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ran her own Washington, D.C. consulting firm.
As education secretary, she was a chief proponent of the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” efforts, a controversial push to that has come under fire for its heavy emphasis on testing. She also chaired the Spellings Commission of the Future of Higher Education , which looked at access, affordability, quality and innovation in the nation’s higher education system.
Former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, also served on the Spellings commission.
Some have questioned a 2005 letter  she penned as education secretary, criticizing a PBS children’s cartoon show for featuring lesbian characters.
“Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode,” Spellings wrote in the 2005 letter to PBS’ then-president. “’Congress’ and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television.”
If selected to lead North Carolina’s public university system, Spellings will be the first UNC president in the modern area without an advanced degree. Her biography on the Bush Presidential Center  lists her as earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston,.
The five previous presidents going back to the 1950s – Tom Ross, Erskine Bowles, C.D. Spangler, Molly Broad and Bill Friday – all had either law degrees or masters in business or economics.
Follow reporter Sarah Ovaska-Few on Twitter tomorrow at @SarahOvaska  as she covers Friday’s meeting to select a new UNC system president.
You can also contact her with any comments or questions at (919) 861-1463 or email@example.com .
(Photo courtesy: Bush Center)