Chairman of UNC System resigns amid controversy

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Last Monday, the Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, John Fennebresque, resigned. Fennebresque has been mired in controversy over the undeserved firing of former UNC system president Tom Ross, and the opaque selection process which brought his successor, Margaret Spellings, into office. A law passed by the NC Congress requires that three candidates for the position of UNC system president be put forth, yet the Board only chose one name, Margaret Spellings. In an 'emergency meeting' held on Friday, the Board met with Spellings, leaving some members to complain about the lack of transparency and short notice. Margaret Spellings, a woman from Texas with no ties to North Carolina, acted as the Secretary of Education under the George W. Bush administration, and helped to mastermind the disastrous No Child Left Behind policy. 

Read more at the News & Record and the News & Observer

Full speed ahead.

That’s what the UNC Board of Governors is doing under embattled Chairman John Fennebresque. It will meet Friday to hire a new president of the state university system.

Doing so appears to defy the spirit of Senate Bill 670 requiring the full board to consider at least three finalists for the job. The board has met with just one candidate — former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings — in a controversial “emergency meeting” last Friday

Some members complained about the short notice and the lack of transparency. Several called for Fennebresque to step down. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore fired off a letter the night before the meeting reminding the board of the legislature’s authority and asserting that “any action or process undertaken by the Board that goes against the will of the elected members of the General Assembly would not be viewed favorably. ... ”

The legislature approved SB 670 by wide margins last month — 47-0 in the Senate and 107-4 in the House. It says that, when the Board of Governors is searching for a new president of the UNC system, “at least three final candidates shall be submitted to the full Board from which the full Board shall make its selection for the President.”

But Gov. Pat McCrory hasn’t signed it. Through a spokesman, he expressed disapproval. It restricts the board from “determining the process of selecting the best qualified candidates,” Josh Ellis told The Associated Press. Board members “should have the autonomy to do the job for which they were appointed.”

The autonomy of board members isn’t the issue. Their full participation is. 

The statement hints that the governor is confident this “potential candidate” will be hired. Fennebresque may have the votes lined up. It may be that the board was presented the names and credentials of other candidates, meeting the letter of SB 670.

But the process lacks an opportunity for the full board to seriously consider other candidates. It creates a problem of public trust. Full speed into controversy isn’t a good idea.

On the second day of her job as secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration in 2004, Margaret Spellings sent a letter to the CEO of PBS demanding that a children’s show that featured a lesbian couple be pulled from the air. Two weeks later, PBS’s CEO stepped down. 

Spellings went to Washington as a former lobbyist-turned-political director to Bush during his first gubernatorial campaign in which he defeated incumbent Texas Gov. Ann Richards by using coded L-word, dogwhistle language as the linchpin in a campaign strategy devised by Karl Rove – who introduced Spellings to Bush. 

Fast forward a decade, and politics and education have intersected in a nasty way in the Tar Heel state. Spellings has surfaced as the frontrunner to succeed Tom Ross as the president of the UNC system in the aftermath of Ross’ partisan sacking by a Republican-dominated, myopic, secretive and feckless Board of Governors. Ross – as good a man as God has ever made – was guilty of no more than being a registered Democrat and former head of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation whose philanthropy has been an obsessive thorn in the side of Art Pope Inc’s. dogma for decades.

Former UNC system President Erskine Bowles, a two-time Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and Clinton White House chief of staff, came to office as a centrist politician, a man of great wealth and privilege who was part of the establishment business-political class in North Carolina. Bowles’ predecessor – Charlotte billionaire C.D. Spangler – was a Republican who had never run for political office yet has been one of the nation’s top donors to the Republican Party. 

Notably, both Bowles and Spangler served as UNC system president during periods when a Democratic governor and General Assembly appointed a Democratic-dominated Board of Governors. Yet neither Spangler nor Bowles, in spite of their partisan affiliations, had any of the political baggage of the sort that Spellings would tote to North Carolina from Texas. 

As the leading candidate to succeed a man of unimpeachable integrity and grace, Spellings profiles as a career political operative, lobbyist, Rove protégée and cultural warrior, the antithesis of recent leaders both Democratic and Republican who have ably led the foremost statewide university system in the nation. While Republican legislators and their appointees to the UNC Board of Governors and Gov. Pat McCrory fight among themselves, Ross remains the adult in the sand box, the stand-up guy whose singular focus has been to protect the interest of our state’s most precious asset at a time of instability, uncertainty and unrest.

I do not like the politics of any of this one iota. I would say the same were Spellings a Democratic frontrunner who presented a past tainted by charged political and cultural divisiveness. It is an open secret that politics is the only factor driving the selection process. And mixing politics with education is once-removed from mixing politics and religion, and we well know the dangers of walking down that path.


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