Leadership & Governance

Spellings Says UNC Has Been ‘Murky’ on Accountability

Margaret Spellings, president, U. of North Carolina system

November 02, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Margaret Spellings took the University of North Carolina’s top job under a cloud of controversy. Her predecessor, Thomas W. Ross, was pushed out by the university system’s board last year, and the search that resulted in her hiring provoked outrage for lacking transparency. Three weeks after she started as the system’s president, the state legislature enacted House Bill 2, a widely panned law that affects transgender people and that landed UNC in the middle of a legal scuffle.

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But Ms. Spellings is eager to get past those issues. She spoke recently with The Chronicle about her hopes for accountability in the university system, a new tuition rate of $500 per semester on three campuses, and – perhaps most important – how she compares North Carolina barbecue to Texas barbecue.


SARAH BROWN: Hi, we're here today with Margaret Spellings. She is the president of the University of North Carolina system . President Spellings, thanks so much for being with us today.


SARAH BROWN: So I wanted to start by talking about — you came into the president's role about seven months ago after a contentious search. You were met on your first day with some protests by some students and faculty members. I wonder, what's your sense of how people feel about your appointment to the presidency now — now that it's been several months and you've had some time to sort of get to know people and that sort of thing?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: I mean, I think we've gotten to know each other, as you say, and things have really died down. I think they understand, as I certainly do, that we're all really interested in the same issues of affordability and access and quality and completion, all those sorts of things. So we learned that we have a lot more in common than we do that divides us, so I love it.

SARAH BROWN: So one of the first challenges that you had to address as president was House Bill 2, also known as the transgender bathroom bill. And I wonder how that's affected your relationship with state lawmakers. I think a lot of people thought when you came to the University of North Carolina that you would be able to improve some strained relations between lawmakers and the university system. So, has HB2 affected that?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, I certainly hope to do that, and House Bill 2 is just one piece of our relationship with them, as policy makers who fund us and do all manner of things, but I do think my stance — and the university's stance — where it's really a law that's unenforceable in a university setting. It is inconsistent with the policies of the university, which we've not changed any of. And so I think, frankly, it helped show the university community that I was independent, and that I would act in the best interest of the university.

So we're in the middle of a lawsuit, as you know. And I work to develop strong relationships with everybody, but I'm anxious to have it resolved, as you can imagine.

SARAH BROWN: So lawmakers have passed a number of things related to the university system this year. Among them was a plan for a $500 tuition at three of the campuses.


SARAH BROWN: So what's your response to those who say potentially that the $500 tuition per semester could cheapen the value of a degree from these campuses? I mean, how do you respond to that criticism?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: You know, it's funny to me — and interesting, ironic — that the legislature has done exactly what we in higher education have been asking for, and that is to restore higher levels of state support and work on affordability. And they have done that in these three institutions. The program will become effective next school year, so it's in the design phase right now. And of course it's my job, and all of our job, to hold the legislature accountable to continue to provide those levels of state funding, but it's a great value for students above all, and families. And I think everyone knows that if you have a college education and you graduate and complete, that you're set up to be successful in this country and in the global knowledge economy.

SARAH BROWN: So in your inaugural address earlier this month, you talked a lot about how the university system hasn't done enough yet to serve underrepresented groups — nontraditional students, first-generation students. You know, that's a pretty broad problem. How might you start addressing it? I mean, where do you begin?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, I think there are some fairly obvious places. One, we have to really work on our pathways between high school and community colleges, community colleges and four-year institutions. And right now, they're a little too random for my liking. I think we can be much more deliberate about that. We need to provide the right kind of supports for first-generation students, and advising and general education and those sorts of things, so that they can be successful. It's not just about the sticker price and the number on the tuition bill. It's also about how quickly we're able to get students on a path, an efficient path, to get in and out of college as quickly and efficiently and in a high-quality way as possible.

SARAH BROWN: You also talked about accountability in that speech, and you've talked about it a number of times since you became president.


SARAH BROWN: You've said that you're interested in implementing some accountability metrics for the 17 system campuses, and potentially penalizing those who miss their goals. So can you give me a sense of what those metrics might look like and what the penalties might look like? Can you make it a little more concrete for me?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Sure. I mean, my observation about this system — and I'm sure it's true of others — is that we've been a little unclear about what we expect from our institutionss, what kind of degree-completion rates we want to see for whom at what price. It's been pretty murky. And I do think that we'll have a system where we have 17 different institutions, and we'll have 17 different kinds of goals articulated for each of them, because your alma mater, Chapel Hill, is very different from Fayetteville State University, and every other one in the system.

So we need to customize what those goals are for the institutions, but we need to be very deliberate about how we're going to measure against them. And then I think that the quid pro quo for institutions is we need to get out of their hair and let them do it. We have a system in this state, in North Carolina, that is pretty bureaucratic and pretty prescriptive about how people use funds, how they allocate time, how they — and so, if we're real with them, we want to be hawkish about goals, and fairly lenient about how to get there.

SARAH BROWN: Yeah. You've said, on that note, that the university system is overregulated. I wonder, what do you mean by that, by there's too much regulation?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Yeah. I mean there are approvals of pay increases, of use of funds to a very minute degree. Obviously, I'm for good fiscal and financial stewardship, but I wonder if we have the balance right between the authority of our big-time managers, our chancellors that we are going to hold accountable for outcomes, but they're going to blame me if I'm sitting there deciding who gets a pay raise and who doesn't. I mean, we need to really give them the autonomy to run their institutions, so long as they're meeting our shared objectives.

SARAH BROWN: Finally, as someone who was born and raised in North Carolina, I have to ask this question. What are your thoughts on North Carolina barbecue versus Texas barbecue?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Oh, Sarah. We were getting along so well. Well, you know, Texans are beef lovers, but I have become a fan of that tomato-based, Western North Carolina kind of barbecue. And so, pork rules, right?

SARAH BROWN: Well, I'm happy to hear that. And thanks again, President Spellings, for spending a few minutes with us today. I really appreciate it.


Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.