Former U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings to lead UNC system

Margaret Spellings

Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Center and former Secretary of Education, discusses education policy in Aspen, Colo. in 2014. Photo credit: LBJ Foundation.

CHAPEL HILL – Following a tumultuous search process, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors announced Friday that former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will serve as president of the 17-campus university system. Spellings, who is currently president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, is a nationally known figure in education circles and is seen as a crusader for reform and accountability in education at all levels.

“I believe, as I’m sure all of you do, that there’s no more important area of public policy than education,” Spellings said following her acceptance of the job offer. “It is not an overstatement to say that education is not only fundamental to each individual North Carolinian but to the success and future of this state, our country, and to peace and stability in the world. I believe this with every fiber of my being and that is why I will work tirelessly with all of you to ensure that each and every student in North Carolina has not only access to higher education, but the skills and abilities to fully access the American dream.”

Spellings served as Secretary of Education and is not known as a polarizing politician, something the board needs after pushing president Tom Ross out and sparring with legislative leaders over the process to select a new leader. Some in the state, including one board member, have called on Board Chairman John Fennebresque of Charlotte to resign over what they said was a lack of transparency by Fennebresque and the search committee. Spellings was approved unanimously by the board.

Spellings used her first public appearance to laud public schools and the students they serve, perhaps foreshadowing a reign that will focus on students at least as much as faculty and administrative issues.

“All of my formal education has been in public schools. And I very much relate to the experience of many of the students who attend college today,” Spellings said. “Those who commute, work, have families, and are concerned about cost and what the investment of time and money means to their future.”

Spellings also delivered an olive branch to university faculty, an important move considering some faculty members have openly questioned the process used to select her.

“We must nurture and safeguard our relationships with all of our stakeholders, starting with the faculty,” she said. “It’s the members of our faculty, after all, who give our universities their intellectual vitality.”

But she went on to stress other relationships important for success. She said elected officials, the business community, and UNC system employees also play a vital role in the success of the system.



Margaret Spellings shares a laugh with former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at a at the Presidential Leadership Scholars event in July 2015. Photo credit: The Bush Center.


Fennebresque seemed relieved to have the process over and was clearly elated by the result.

“I’m so excited and so relieved that we have hired the special person that Margaret Spellings is,” Fennebresque said.

As Education Secretary, Spellings led the implementation of the No Child Left Behind act, a law passed with broad bipartisan support and was intended to enhance accountability in public schools. Prior to serving as a cabinet secretary, she was education adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush in Texas and held various positions promoting public schools in Texas.

Spellings holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston. She will start her job March 1 and under the terms of her 5-year contract will earn an annual salary of $775,000. Speaking in Chapel Hill Friday, she laid out her vision for the university system.

“The opportunity is clear: To firmly establish the University of North Carolina as finest university system in the country,” said Spellings. “To accomplish this mission, we must be productive, accountable, agile, and transparent. We must keep a firm grasp on our obligation to innovate, to remain the engine that drives North Carolina’s growth and assures such great quality of life here.”