An Open Letter to Margaret Spellings

After a contentious and often fumbled search process, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors has named former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings as the next UNC system president. She follows President Tom Ross who was well liked within the university, but failed to make many friends among Republican leaders in Raleigh. I would have preferred a president with significant academic experience, but I also see Spellings in the mold of other nonacademic presidents particularly Erskine Bowles. Below is an open letter to Margaret Spellings with my recommendations for her upon taking over the system in March.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Dear President-Elect Spellings,

Congratulations on your appointment to lead the University of North Carolina system. The UNC system holds a long history supporting the social and economic success of the state and I hope you will continue to build on this success.

As you know, the search process that lead to your appointment has been quite contentious. Moreover, the faculty, staff, and students of the university feel that the Board of Governors has failed to listen to their concerns for the past two or three years. On Day 1, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the campuses and start to rebuild the trust that was destroyed with the firing of your predecessor and the resulting search process.

Throughout your career, you have adeptly navigated the policy making process. One of the biggest challenges that will face you is arguing for support and resources for the university in light of current priorities in the state legislature. North Carolina will likely continue to have limited revenue available for various state priorities so you will need to argue for the value of the UNC system to the people and economy of North Carolina.

In addition to arguing for additional resources and support, you will likely find the legislature keen to impose their will through other policies and regulations on the campuses. The legislature surely has an appropriate policy role to play in managing the university, but I encourage you to protect the campuses from legislative micromanaging or highly ideological policy proposals.

Similarly, many supporters of the university have been concerned about the increasing level of micromanagement from the Board of Governors in recent years. One of the most important jobs of any president is helping guide the board. Given the current membership, this may be your most difficult task. I hope you are able to provide some direction to keep the BOG focused on an appropriate level of oversight and avoiding overreach into the daily work of the campuses.

I disagree with your philosophy on higher education. I don’t believe more accountability and metrics are needed. I don’t believe dramatic reforms are called for or prudent. However, I am also realistic that you will attempt to put¬†reforms into place and were brought into the presidency in part to do this. I simply ask that you seek input and adapt based on feedback from all levels of faculty and administrators before moving ahead.

Moreover, as you are packing for your move to North Carolina, please do not pack the higher education reforms that have been floating around Texas in recent years. Measuring faculty productivity at the individual professor level. Institutional performance funding. Devaluing of research generally and the humanities and social sciences specifically. Those ideas are not good for Texas and they certainly are not good for North Carolina.

I wish you success in your new role. The UNC system is one of the most important public higher education systems in the country. We need UNC to be strong for the future of our state and nation.


Michael Harris

Associate Professor of Higher Education

UNC Chapel Hill Class of 2001

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