Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education under George W. Bush, is a finalist in the search for a new president of the University of North Carolina system, and she will meet with the university’s Board of Governors in an emergency session on Friday, The News and Observer reports, citing unidentified sources “with direct knowledge” of the search.
Ms. Spellings is the only candidate scheduled to meet with the board on Friday, the Raleigh newspaper said.
The hastily called meeting quickly drew criticism from leaders of the state legislature, which passed a measure late last month that aimed to prevent a situation in which only one finalist was brought forward. The bill, which has not yet been signed into law, will require the search committee to present three finalists to the full board before a selection is made.
In a letter to the Board of Governors on Thursday, the president pro tem of the State Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives wrote that “calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed” as an attempt by the board “to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina prior to the bill becoming law.”
The controversy over the emergency meeting is not the first rough intersection of politics and university affairs. The UNC system, long regarded as a state treasure, has come under increasing criticism from lawmakers and libertarian and conservative groups in recent years.
Some people had feared that politics was a factor when the board ousted Thomas W. Ross as president of the university, in January. Mr. Ross is scheduled to step down in January. The board’s chairman, John C. Fennebresque, has said that allegations that board members had been swayed by elected officials “couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Mr. Fennebresque is himself now a focus of controversy. Two board members called for his resignation on Thursday.
One of them, David Powers, wrote an email to the board on Thursday that, according to the Raleigh newspaper, did not mention Ms. Spellings by name but said the candidate “could be an excellent choice — indeed, maybe even that ‘game changer’ that we all dream of.” But he added that he did not believe the candidate “would have any chance of success if viewed as ‘the chairman’s choice.’”
Mr. Powers said it would be unfair for the candidate to be judged “in a light other than her many qualifications,” and called on Mr. Fennebresque to resign before Friday’s meeting.
Another board member, Thom Goolsby, wrote that Mr. Fennebresque would be “doing a grave disservice to the university and your candidate by moving forward” with Friday’s meeting: “No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.”
The board members received notice of the emergency meeting in an email sent on Wednesday night by a university lawyer on behalf of Mr. Fennebresque, according to The News and Observer, which obtained a copy of the email.
The search committee, which had met earlier that day, had concluded “that it was important to have this meeting immediately because there is some risk of the candidate’s name becoming known,” said the email. “The candidate is also available to meet with the board in person at this time.” The email also said the meeting “is NOT being called to elect a president, and there will be no votes taken.”
Ms. Spellings is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in Dallas. As education secretary, she was a major proponent of accountability in public schools and higher education. In 2005 she created the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which looked at ways to make colleges and universities more affordable and accountable. In a 2011 interview with The Chronicle, she said she was proud that the commission had “kick-started the conversation” about those goals but that progress had been too slow. The commission’s chief legacy, she said, was “raising the issues, putting the elephant on the table, and gaining additional allies for the cause. It was kind of lonely out there five years ago.”