24 November 2015

The University of North Carolina’s New President Should Scare Anyone Who Cares About Higher Ed

 Margaret Spellings is a Karl Rove protégé who calls students “customers,” and now she’s in charge of the state’s prestigious public university system.

By Zoë Carpenter

After the board that governs the University of North Carolina unexpectedly fired system president Tom Ross in January, there were murmurs that it might replace Ross with conservative kingmaker Art Pope. Pope and the web of think tanks and political groups he funds have long envisioned radical changes in the university system, as I reported in June. While Ross was respected by faculty, he was also a Democrat; UNC’s Board of Governors is appointed by the legislature, which flipped Republican in 2010. Many interpreted Ross’s ouster as the beginning of an ideological purge. Indeed, in the months that followed the board and legislature made a number of moves with troubling implications for intellectual freedom and accessibility at what has long been one of the country’s most celebrated public universities.

Pope himself was not really a plausible replacement; his appointment would have been too transparently political, and his network has clashed with (comparatively) moderate elements on the board and in the legislature. When the board made a selection in late October it chose someone outside the state’s conservative machinery: Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education under George W. Bush. Spellings is a seasoned political operative; Karl Rove introduced her to Bush, and she went on to direct his campaign for Texas governor and follow him to the White House. She is the latest in a string of politicians and former executives—including former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano at the University of California, and Timothy Wolfe, who resigned Monday after protests at the University of Missouri—to be installed at the helm of a public university. She’s not Pope, but her track record gives those concerned about the corporatization of higher education something to worry about nonetheless.


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