Pushing Spellings into the pantheon, not the trash bin

Let’s help her all we can.

That is what I am telling my friends in the university community when they express displeasure at the selection of Margaret Spellings as their new president, or when they complain about the UNC Board of Governors’ presidential selection process and some of its other recent actions.

First of all though, you should know that I am a friend and big admirer of the current university president, Tom Ross. By all accounts, he has done, a masterful job. Even though the current board of governors signaled the end of his presidency a year ago, he remained on the job, cooperative, productive, positive, and successful.

I am sorry he is leaving. The state and the university communities are losing an extraordinary leader.

That said, why am I cautioning others in the university to help the new president rather than berating her for her past political connections and public service?

My answer is another question: Will our state university system be better if she succeeds or if she fails in her new job?

If success includes securing the resources to maintain and enhance the universities’ program, in addition to leading and managing its operations, Spellings has a good chance to succeed.

Our university president is the connective link between the university and the state legislature and its leaders, the ones who make the decisions each year about the amount of state resources that will be allocated to higher education.

Even more important, perhaps, the legislature can make laws that regulate the operation of the university, as it did last month when it amended the law to change the selection procedure for presidents. Another example occurred in 1963, when it passed the Speaker Ban Law that restricted freedom of speech on university campuses.

Unlike most state higher education governing boards, UNC’s board of governors is selected by the North Carolina legislature.

Ms. Spellings lacks two qualities that have been important to prior UNC presidents who followed the legendary 30-year tenure of William Friday:

1. Public higher education administration experience, as with Molly Broad, and

2. Significant experience in North Carolina public life, as with Dick Spangler, Erskine Bowles and Tom Ross.

Although she lacks both these qualities, Ms. Spellings knows the national education establishment, perhaps better than all her predecessors, and because of her political experience in the Republican camp, she can expect a warm welcome when she asserts the importance of her education to our state as an advocate to the Republican leadership in our state legislature.

The challenge to supporters of the university should not be to destroy Spellings, but rather to use her vast political experience and connections to preserve and enhance the university.

If her political connections and experience give her an open door to legislative leaders; if she uses that access to explain how the institution underpins our state’s progress and advocate for the resources it needs to continue its leadership role; and if she is willing to stand in the door to prevent unnecessary and detrimental legislative meddling, then she may follow her presidential predecessors into the pantheon of heroic North Carolinians.

On the other hand, if her background and connections lead to her being a puppet of some ideologues whose agenda is to hobble the university, she could wind up in the trash bin of North Carolina history.

I am hoping for the pantheon, not the trash bin.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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