The University of North Carolina’s new system president walked in and made a lap around the table to shake hands before taking her seat.
“We are interested in really just getting to meet you and to know you,” David McCord, chair of the Faculty Senate and a psychology professor at WCU, said when she’d sat down.
In a later interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Spellings would describe her two-day visit at WCU as friendly, respectful, constructive, humbling and inspiring.
That’s a different tenor than the one struck elsewhere in the 17-campus UNC system since Spellings began her new job March 1. On Spellings’ first day on the job, students at UNC-Chapel Hill staged a walkout. When she visited the campus of Fayetteville State University on March 4, sign-bearing protesters showed up to the Board of Governor’s meeting she was attending.
Much of that criticism had stemmed from Spellings’ background working with the George W. Bush administration, including as Secretary of Education for four years with a hefty role in creating the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics also pointed out her paid service on the board of directors for the Apollo Group, parent company of the for-profit Phoenix University. A 2005 incident in which she, as the U.S. Secretary of Education, asked PBS to return federal funds following a TV show that depicted a gay couple, has also been criticized. All that was set upon the background of the controversial firing by the UNC Board of Governors of her predecessor Tom Ross and a hiring process that some categorized as secretive.
Protestors were absent from the WCU campus, however, and the impression Spellings left after she’d exited the roomful of Faculty Senate members was as warm as the reception she’d received at the start of the hour-long meeting.
“Is she going to be able to deal with the opposing pressure that she has just walked into the middle of? She seems really capable of doing that,” McCord said. “I don’t know anybody who would be better than this woman we just spent the last hour with.”
“Back in October there was a terrible search process,” McCord added. “It was secretive, it was really bad, and it was highly politicized. None of that’s her fault.”
“I think she understands a lot about who we are and our challenges,” said accounting professor Leroy Kauffman.
“It’s easy for us to get lost over on this side of the state sometimes, and she seemed to understand we don’t stop in Asheville,” agreed social work professor Jeanne Dulworth.
Defining Western’s difference
Western and its unique place in the UNC system was a continuing theme of Spellings’ visit, coming up not only at her meeting with the Faculty Senate but in her conversations with staff and student leadership and the board of trustees.
“It’s a uniqueness and a pride,” Spellings said of the spirit she’s picked up at Western. “It’s not a little sister kind of attitude. It’s an owning of that real difference and a pride in this region.”
Unlike institutions such as UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, faculty told Spellings, Western is a university that draws high-achievers as well as farm kids from the state’s westernmost reaches who are attempting to be their family’s first college graduate. Students come to study philosophy and literature and sociology as well as engineering and nursing and forensic science.
“Part of what gives meaning to my life is we give some scruffy-looking kids from way out west a shot, and many make it,” McCord said. “That’s what is so great about working out here.”
But some of those long shots don’t make it. So, while Western’s freshman-to-sophomore retention rate has improved a lot in recent years, the question is how high WCU could get its rate while still fulfilling its duty to less advantaged populations.
“To say that works against us in retention rates misses some points,” McCord said.
Formulas dictated from higher up, like teacher-to-student ratio, also don’t work too well at Western, argued engineering professor Bill Yang.
“Our teaching task really is much more difficult than some other institutions who have a more uniform type of student,” Yang said — smaller classes are essential to reach the diverse student population.
“It’s not just the class size but the overall ratio and relationship there,” added philosophy and religion professor David Henderson. “You can’t have that kind of relationship with more than so many students, and that I think is really crucial to helping students who are a first-time college student or having their world expanded.”
Faculty as innovators
Spellings listened as the faculty members made their points, agreeing that Western occupies a unique niche in the system and that the on-the-ground professors and instructors probably have the most valuable perspective when it comes to commenting on how state policies manifest in real life.
“The people in the legislature are good, well-intentioned public servants like the rest of us,” Spellings said. “They understand what this institution means to the state. They do. But we have to give them something to work from. If not, they’ll make it up.”
She challenged the faculty to step up and be the innovators, issuing a similar call to the board of trustees the next morning.
While faculty mentioned issues like class size and teaching load as examples of ill-fitting “one-size-fits-all” policies, Spellings focused her rallying cry on the anticipated negative effects of the N.C. Guaranteed Admissions Program, a law that would require some students applying to the UNC system to do two years at community college first. The law aims to improve graduation rates and save the state money, but a recent report studying its impacts for the UNC Board of Governors, Spellings said, found the program would have “serious unintended consequences.”
“While some of the objectives are legitimate objectives — affordability and access are issues — we just don’t think the solution at this time is the right one,” she said.
N.C. GAP, she said, is a case of “right problem, wrong answer.”
Because it usually takes a few years in the world of education to see whether something’s working, she said, she’d rather take some time before combating full-on the issues N.C. GAP seeks to address to get a better baseline on the effect of some more recent policy changes.
Pay is a top priority
There’s one issue Spellings does plan to tackle head-on this spring: salaries.
“Pay is a priority for me in this budget session, period,” she told the Faculty Senate. “If we lose that advantage, we really undermine what we do as an institution.”
Salaries have been stagnant in the UNC system for years, and faculty are beginning to make career decisions accordingly. Though it might sound bad for a college professor to be clamoring for pay raises for college professors, it’s not as selfish a request as it might sound, McCord said.
“There’s going to be massive losses of talent and major inability to draw new people like we have historically been able to do,” McCord said. “The concern really is for the welfare of this overall institution and less self-serving than one might think.”
Spellings said that getting “some kind of decent raise” in this budget session seems doable and named the task her “top priority.”
Looking a little further ahead, she said, she’ll be making some — cost-neutral — changes to the UNC system’s upper administration pending a strategic planning process begun with Boston Consulting Group.
“It’s well informed and built on observation about what we can and should do more of and where we have duplicated effort,” she said of the report, which relies on 150 interviews with people across the UNC system.
Where Spellings’ administration is concerned, the proof is in a pudding yet to be served. But people at Western Carolina seemed hopeful for what her tenure might bring.
“She’s willing to listen,” Yang said. “That’s definitely a good first step.”
Smoky Mountain News: You’ve spoken in support of leveraging private funds to support universities. Where do you see the line between support and dependence? In particular, what are your thoughts on the $2 million gift Western Carolina University has been offered from the Charles Koch Foundation?
Margaret Spellings: We want, enjoy and expect investors from all sectors — the philanthropic and private sector — to elevate and provide resources to the work that we do. It should have no strings attached. It ought to be a gift that is very beneficial to this institution overall and for the long haul, and I’m confident that Chancellor (David) Belcher has negotiated that arrangement with this particular entity and it will mean great things for scholars and students at this particular institution.
SMN: What is your main takeaway from your time at Western Carolina?
MS: I think what an important part of the community this institution is. We talk a lot about town and gown, but that’s very, very powerful in this community. It’s a center of intellectual life, it’s a center of services. It’s just a major part of who and what this region is.
SMN: How might what you’ve seen here affect what you do going forward?
MS: It isn’t one size fits all. I think my job is to understand what is your unique mission and how do you want to be held accountable. How do you want to be resourced around your unique mission? We’re in a day and time when we’re all accountable — not all for the same things. How do we know good and how do we know excellent when we see it?
SMN: Since your hiring you’ve encountered some opposition. Do you feel that any of the criticisms are valid and how do you see yourself moving on from that?
MS: I think people are going to stop talking about Margaret Spellings when we start talking about real things that matter to people. Our challenges are around affordability, around completion, around opportunity. Around this (N.C. Connect) bond, around infrastructure. Those are the important things people are about. I’ve been well-received everywhere I go. I think people who love this university system want me to be successful.