Students Are Trying To Remove UNC’s Controversial President Before She Even Starts

Margaret Spellings, a former Bush administration official, was chosen to lead North Carolina's public universities in a secretive process, critics say.

A coalition of North Carolina students and faculty are protesting the decision to appoint former Bush administration official Margaret Spellings as the president of the University of North Carolina system, citing both her record and the secretive manner in which she was chosen.

Spellings, a former secretary of education under George W. Bush, is set to take office in March. She was a controversial pick due to her work at for-profit colleges and a student loan collection agency, as well as her past attempt to block PBS from airing a cartoon featuring a same-sex couple.

The UNC Board of Governors picked Spellings in October, after holding an “emergency meeting” shortly before a new law kicked in that would have required the board to nominate three finalists before picking a new system president.

The protest will take place during the board's meeting on Friday morning and is being organized by a handful of liberal groups, including the Faculty Forward Network, Greenpeace USA, Ignite NC, Progress NC and UnKoch My Campus. Students say that in addition to rescinding Spellings' appointment, they also want the board to stop holding meetings during exam and break periods, a practice they say fails to honor open-meetings laws.

Spellings' appointment falls in line with other recent board decisions that have ruffled feathers, students and faculty say. "The Spellings issue has just brought a lot of other things to a head and is just the latest embodiment of the corporatization of higher education in the state," said Altha J. Cravey, a geography professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2013, the Board of Governors voted to ban gender-neutral housing in the school system without allowing any public discussion of the issue. The following year, it cited UNC-Chapel Hill's sexual health programming as a reason to slash the campus health services budget, partly due to a campaign called "Orgasm? Yes Please!" that taught about safe sex and consent.

"Anything that mentions sex -- it drives them crazy," Cravey said.

Earlier this year, the board said it would close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, a think tank led by law professor Gene Nichol, a critic of Republican policies in the state. Many observers and critics viewed it as an ideological move, since the think tank was privately funded and didn't use taxpayer dollars. The board also moved to cut dozens of degree programs at various campuses.

Many of these decisions came after the GOP took control of the state legislature in 2010 and Republicans in the state made what Democrats criticized as partisan appointments to the board. Conservatives celebrated after the board fired system president Tom Ross at the beginning of 2015.

The Board of Governors, which oversees 17 public universities in the state, has no plans to drop Spellings' appointment, said UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington. She described the board's decision as a confidential process that complied with state law.

"Spellings’ election was the culmination of an exhaustive, three-part search process that spanned seven months," Worthington said in an email. "A Leadership Statement Committee gathered input from faculty, staff, students, alumni, boards of trustees, the military, and others through four live-streamed regional public forums, an online survey completed by more than 4,400 individuals, a dedicated email address, and many informal consultations."

She added, "We hope that individuals who may disagree with that process will not prejudge President-elect Spellings, but will instead give her a chance to be successful."

This story has been updated with a statement from UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington.


Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and is based in New York. You can contact him at, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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