The notably dapper Thom Goolsby, member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, made a mark of sorts with his put-down of the NAACP-led Moral Monday protest movement – the movement that called the conservative-controlled General Assembly to account for a range of policies harmful to the state’s disadvantaged and its overall well-being.
Goolsby, a Republican state senator at the time, strolled along the crowded state government mall amongst the protesters, resplendent in his summer suit. His verdict afterward: “Moron Mondays.”
After Goolsby quit the Senate, his former colleagues elected him to the UNC board. Now his barbed comments about the hiring of a new UNC system president, Margaret Spellings, highlight the dysfunction and presumably the conflicting agendas that marred the hiring process.
Goolsby ripped the board’s chairman, John Fennesbresque, for engineering the hire amidst secrecy and a lack of input from other board members.
He declared that whomever Fennebresque backed for the presidency would be “fruit from a poisonous tree.” That turned out to be Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education and a member of former President George W. Bush’s inner circle. Now she has been entrusted with one of North Carolina’s most critically important public service jobs.
With Spellings safely signed to a five-year contract – her starting base salary will be $775,000 per year – Fennebresque promptly exited the stage. His resignation likely didn’t disappoint top Republican legislators. Although the whole affair was shrouded in intrigue, speculation held that leaders such as Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore favored a candidate with North Carolina roots whom they already knew and were confident they could work with.
Put another way, they may well have preferred a UNC president who would be primed to take orders. They obviously had concluded that the current president, Tom Ross, wasn’t saluting with sufficient vigor. So Ross – guilty of being a mainstream Democrat – was pushed aside in a forced retirement orchestrated by Fennebresque, with a departure date in March.
Spellings, far from having come up through the North Carolina ranks, is a Texan who probably had never heard of Berger or Moore until she was being recruited for her new job. She has operated on a national level that has given her a wide range of contacts within Republican political circles, the business community, and among education-oriented thinkers and policy-makers. In some respects, including her experience in the political trenches, she’s well-suited to be an advocate for the multi-campus system she’ll head.
Yet the last thing her new bosses on the board and beyond them in the legislature appear to want is a stalwart defender of the system as it now operates.
She clearly is expected to be the change agent many conservatives believe is needed, and support for new approaches to higher education has been one of her themes. But will those approaches be worked out in tandem with legislators who already have tried to jerk a knot in a system they believe is wasteful, unaccountable, and infected with liberalism? Or will she endeavor to protect the system’s many strengths while addressing its weaknesses?
Spellings served as education secretary during Bush’s second term. Her legacy is tied to No Child Left Behind, a law with admirable intent but dubious means. By trying to hold public schools accountable for the success of all students, including those whose backgrounds suggested they faced long odds, the law ramped up the regime of high-stakes testing and branded many schools as failing when a few students fell short of unrealistic benchmarks.
Accountability also was a dominant theme in Secretary Spellings’ most significant higher education foray. She put together a Commission on the Future of Higher Education that, in its 2006 report, called for a rethinking of how colleges and universities are assessed by their potential “customers.” In a nutshell, if an institution wasn’t turning out graduates who could move readily into the workforce, it was fooling those customers into buying a faulty product.
Among the corporate executives, higher education officials and other public figures who served on the commission and signed its report was four-term North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat with a sterling record as an education champion. If Hunt had shown up in Chapel Hill on Oct. 23 when the Board of Governors summoned Spellings aboard, that would have sent a welcome signal. But no matter what he thinks of Spellings, Hunt wasn’t likely to accept a cameo role in a scheme that victimized an ally such as Ross.
The issue of campus accountability is a thorny one, to put it mildly. Here we have universities that derive a large, although diminishing, share of their support from public tax dollars. How much leeway, under the banner of academic freedom, should they be given to decide what to teach and how to teach it? How should their degree of success be gauged? Or can it be systematically gauged at all? College rankings such as those published by U.S. News & World Report are popular, demonstrating a hunger for this kind of information, but their methodologies are routinely criticized.
If students fail to earn their degrees in timely fashion, or fail to find employment that pays decently and puts their skills to good use, is that the fault of the school or of the students themselves? Or, perhaps, is it because of an economy that’s evolving faster than our education system has been able to track?
The higher education enterprise has long been associated with the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and as well with the pursuit of knowledge that benefits society at large. Students who choose to take part in this grand enterprise naturally hope they’ll acquire the kinds of skills, if not the specific information, that make them attractive to employers. But for many students, college has become less a ticket to solid jobs than to underemployment as restaurant servers, coffee pourers, and Uber drivers.
When families are expected to pay (or borrow) thousands of dollars for outcomes of that sort, it’s fair to question whether higher education is operating as it should. But it’s also not helpful to blur the age-old distinction between education that seeks to broaden intellectual horizons and training that seeks to serve the demands of particular occupations. No matter whose narrow interests are served, North Carolina’s university system must not be allowed to veer across the line into places where vocational training is a paramount goal.
The Council of Churches puts a high priority on public education at all levels because it is the most time-tested and proven pathway for each and every member of our society to advance toward personal fulfillment. Among the strengths Margaret Spellings brings to her new job is her background as someone who, by her own descriptions, was a non-traditional college student who nevertheless was able to take what she learned as a University of Houston undergraduate and run fast and far with it. This is someone who should identify with the many North Carolinians for whom the UNC system can be a path toward fuller, more prosperous and productive lives even while they work or raise kids.
Access to that system is a critical concern. It must not be precluded because of cost or family circumstance. Spellings has spoken enthusiastically of the options that can be provided through online “distance learning” models, which also happen to be cheaper than traditional classes.
These options deserve to be further explored – but it would be a travesty if distance learning became a further excuse for Republican budget-cutting aimed at those doggone campus liberals and for more tax cuts benefiting the well-off among us. It also would be a mistake to spin off instructional responsibilities to for-profit operators of the kind Spellings has been comfortable with, as evidenced by her past service on the board of the University of Phoenix’s parent company.
North Carolina’s constitution directs that the benefits of public higher education will be extended to the state’s people free of expense, “so far as practicable.” Even with that hedge, there clearly was a belief among the framers that access to affordable higher education would be a cornerstone of progress. History has borne them out. North Carolina’s modern economy rests in large part on the accomplishments of its universities.
Quality must be part of the mix. But we have to hope that Spellings will not become so focused on chasing elusive quality measurements or on saving money that the university system’s mission of open inquiry – via teaching, research, public engagement — is degraded. She can succeed as president if she stands firm on the premise that higher education’s purposes go well beyond preparing new generations of workers and that they embrace as well the quests for truth and a better society.