By Jenna A. Robinson
Recently, the Raleigh News & Observer revealed that the UNC Presidential Search Committee’s top candidate for the next system president is former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
Spellings is certainly a better choice than others who have been rumored, including WCU chancellor David Belcher, Iowa State University President Steven Leath, State Treasurer Janet Cowell, former Progress Energy executive Bill Johnson, and corporate banker Catherine Bessant.
UNC Board Member David Powers called Spellings, “an excellent choice – indeed, maybe even that ‘game changer’ that we all dream of.”
But the process by which Spellings was identified has come under considerable scrutiny.
Earlier this year, a committee of the Board redesigned the presidential search process, limiting the authority for the search to an 11-member committee—some of whom left the Board in July. This means that new members of the Board appointed in 2015 are locked out of the search process, as are other Board members who are not on the committee.
In response to public and Board complaints about the new procedure, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 670 before they left Raleigh at the end of last month.
The bill specifies: “The Board shall use the following process whenever the Board conducts a search for a President of The University of North Carolina:
(1) At least three final candidates shall be submitted to the full Board from which the full Board shall make its selection for the President.
(2) The Board shall conduct a vote on the selection of the President and the candidate shall receive a majority of votes of the entire Board in order to be elected President of The University of North Carolina.”
It also states that the Board may appoint an interim president if necessary.
When the Board announced today’s “emergency meeting,” some pundits began to suspect that the committee was attempting to circumvent the provisions of a new law bringing more transparency to the search process.
First John Newsom of the Greensboro News & Record and then the leadership of the NC General Assembly said as much.
Newsom reported: “The BOG went into this search with no firm deadline. Tom Ross is supposed to leave Jan. 3 or whenever the board named his successor. So the BOG can take its sweet time if it wants to.
But Senate Bill 670, which changes the rules of the search, imposes a deadline of sorts. The bill is parked on the governor’s desk. If Pat McCrory signs it, the rules change. If he ignores it, and McCrory doesn’t appear to be rummaging around his desk drawers for a pen, it becomes law on Oct. 30. So there’s your deadline.”
Now, Board members—including David Powers, Thom Goolsby, and Marty Kotis—have called for Board Chairman John Fennebresque’s resignation.
The process for finding a new president for UNC, they said, has been so secretive and exclusive that any product of the search (no matter how qualified) would be forever tainted. In other words, the ends don’t justify the means.
Jenna A. Robinson is president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.