Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will take on the role of president of North Carolina’s public university system as the result of a unanimous vote by the UNC Board of Governors.
The search for a new president began in secret last January after former UNC President Tom Ross was removed from office without explanation after serving for five years.
Members had pushed Ross out, only saying that they wanted a change. Chapel Hill, the flagship school for the 17-campus system, is still dealing with a scandal concerning athletes taking fake classes in which they received high grades, which was first brought to light over 20 years ago.
Spellings received a five-year contract that will pay her a base salary of $775,000 per year, almost 30% higher than what Ross had received.
Although the board voted unanimously, conflict was still seen throughout the room, as a number of UNC board members, faculty and legislators protested the decision, with some holding signs as Spellings came in.
Asked about comments she made in 2005 concerning a push made by Spellings to pull a PBS show that featured a lesbian couple from the lineup, she said she had “no comments about those lifestyles,” angering many, who began to question whether or not she could lead a university system in light of her views on homosexuality.
According to Spellings, she was being political at the press conference, adding, “these are all political settings.”
After the announcement was made, Spellings discussed the importance of giving everyone access to a high quality education, especially for low-income and minority children.
“Today in our country, we are far short of achieving this, especially for our poor and minority communities,” she said. “We must continue to excel at research, scholarship, public service and innovation, and we must close the achievement gap at all levels. We can, and must, do both.”
She will become the first UNC president since the 1950’s to not hold an advanced degree. Spellings earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston in political science. The five presidents before her held either law or master’s degrees in business or economics, writes Jonathan Drew for The Huffington Post.
While she has spent a good deal of her time influencing K-12 policy as education secretary, she is also responsible for the formation of a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The commission took it upon itself to look deeper into a number of issues including access, affordability, quality and accountability within colleges and universities across the nation, writes Jane Stancill for The News and Observer.
The commission began in 2005 on the UNC Charlotte campus. The following year a report, including recommendations, was issued by the commission, which argued that the higher education system in the United States was at a turning point as market, global, technological and financial pressures continued to mount.
“It was bold and audacious,” she said. “We started a conversation that had not taken place before, and we delivered a seminal report on many of the issues that are still before us.”
Spellings is set to take office on March 1, 2016.