Margaret Spellings Resigns As Head of UNC System

Oct 25, 2018

Updated at 1:52 p.m. |Oct. 26, 2018

Margaret Spellings - a former education secretary to President George W. Bush - has resigned as president of the University of North Carolina.

"I came into the position intent on creating a culture of higher expectations and that shift is underway," Spellings told reporters Friday. "But times change, and those changes demand new leaders and new approaches."

The public university's Board of Governors voted Friday to approve a separation package for Spellings, who has served as president of the state's 17-campus system since March 2016. Spellings will receive a $500,000 separation payment, as well $35,000 in relocation expenses. She may serve on another board starting in the new year.

Spellings is halfway through a five-year contract she began after the Republican-majority North Carolina university board forced out her predecessor, who got the job under Democratic control.

Spellings was hired to lead the UNC System after a contentious search process that followed the dismissal of former president Tom Ross.

She began her tenure on March 1, 2016 – exactly three years from the day she will leave. Her three-year tenure is the shortest of any permanent UNC President since consolidation of the system. Her five-year contract would have expired in February 2021. She earned nearly $900,000 last year, including salary and bonuses.

Spellings' national reputation was seen as a boost for the schools that together enroll more than 220,000 students, and she spent her first months visiting campuses and building relationships.

But her tenure included multiple controversies and conflicts.

Some power brokers in the Republican-led state legislature saw her name recognition as allowing her too much independence, and she quickly figured into the culture wars marking the rise of hard-right political values in North Carolina.

She was in charge of the 17-campus system when the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that required people use the public bathroom associated with the gender on their birth certificate.

Spellings complied, if unenthusiastically, when the university system became a central battleground over HB2. The university system was sued because the law also required transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.

The law led to companies, concerts and conferences shunning North Carolina. Spellings said last year that people recruited for university jobs had ruled out moving to North Carolina because of the law.

"I know people have withdrawn their candidacy," Spellings told The Associated Press in an interview. "But how many? To what effect? Were they not coming anyway? We'll never know."

Also last year, the UNC Board of Governors voted to bar the UNC Center for Civil Rights, based at the UNC-Chapel Hill Law School, from litigation – effectively ending the Center’s affiliation with UNC.

Spellings, 60, was reproached for a decision last year to request added security in the wake of deadly racist violence in Charlotte, Virginia, and a majority of board members signed a letter criticizing "weakness" in the system's response to plans for huge protests demanding the removal of a Confederate soldier statue from a central spot on the flagship Chapel Hill campus.

Spellings and former governing board chairman Louis Bissette wrote to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seeking state help with security because campus police feared a potentially dangerous confrontation.

The Confederate "Silent Sam" statue was later torn down by demonstrators. The Board of Governors demanded that campus officials produce a plan by the middle of November about what to do next.

The controversy and toppling of Silent Sam has further inflamed tensions on the Board. A faction of Board members have been publicly supportive of returning the Confederate statue to its place on the Chapel Hill campus. The UNC-Chapel HIll Board of Trustees and Chancellor Carol Folt have said they will present their plan for Silent Sam to the UNC Board of Governors by Nov. 15.

The majority of the members of UNC Board of Governors began their terms after Spellings took office. Many of the disagreements between the overwhelmingly Republican Board have spilled into the open, and factions have lined up behind and against Spellings. Former chair Lew Bissette was a strong supporter of Spellings. The Board also includes several outspoken former lawmakers and political figures, including Thom Goolsby, Tom Fetzer, Leo Daughtry, and Bob Rucho.

During a press conference Friday, Spellings was asked if the dynamics of the board influenced her decision to step down.

"Governance is always being calibrated and recalibrated, and that's part of the fun of the job, it's part of the job," Spellings said. "And I've done it for three years, and the time is ripe for me to really step back and reflect on, you know, how many more licks I can hit, how many more rodeos do I have."

Spellings said she is not certain of what she will do next, but that she will likely continue in public service in her home state of Texas.

She came to North Carolina after running the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. She also served on the board of directors for a student-loan collection company and for the for-profit University of Phoenix's parent company.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.