Welcome to North Carolina, Secretary Spellings

The search for the next University of North Carolina system president has finally concluded. Margaret Spellings, secretary of the U.S. Education Department during George W. Bush’s second presidential term (2005-2009), was unanimously elected by the system’s Board of Governors last Friday. She’ll take the helm in March 2016 with a starting salary of $775,000 (a substantial raise over the $600,000 received by outgoing president Thomas Ross).

Spellings is a moderate Republican, but one who shows some promise of developing into a reform-minded university leader—a very welcome possibility. She opposes what she calls universities’ “send us the money and leave us alone” approach, and some of her views on higher education challenge those of the academic establishment. 

She was perhaps best known during her time as education secretary for her vigorous support of the No Child Left Behind Act. That policy, featuring extensive testing of K-12 students, was highly controversial and criticized by both left and right. 

More important as an indication of the direction she will take atop the UNC system is her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She convened the commission (which included former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat) during her first year as Education Secretary, and tasked it with finding ways to increase college access and improve affordability, quality, and accountability.

The result was a 2006 report entitled A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. Its major recommendations called for policymakers to:

  • “Dramatically expand” access to higher education while reducing the need for remediation;
  • Encourage colleges to embrace online technology and learning innovations;
  • Provide a “significant increase in need-based financial aid” while “streamlining” the financial aid application process;
  • Improve learning outcomes by urging the use of “value-added” assessments such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment;
  • Expand collection of student and institutional data to create a “consumer-friendly” web tool to help students and parents make more informed college decisions;
  • Increase federal funding in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Other recommendations were aimed at improving colleges’ finances and eliminating unnecessary costs. They targeted burdensome federal and state regulations of higher education, administrative bloat, and anticompetitive accreditation processes.

One proposal to cut red tape was intended to spur innovation. It called for:

accreditation agencies to act in a more timely manner to accredit new institutions and new programs at existing institutions, while focusing on results and quality rather than dictating, for example, process, inputs, and governance, which perpetuates current models and impedes innovation. 

A Test of Leadership, in other words, was a mixture of ideas. That’s partly because it represented the views of the Commission’s various members, who included university and business leaders such as James Duderstadt (former University of Michigan president), as well as more conservative reformers, such as economist Richard Vedder. 

Spellings approved the recommendations and urged action on the part of universities. Additionally, she drafted Education Department regulations that would have required accreditors to consider learning outcomes during their reviews—in effect tying colleges’ ability to accept federal student aid dollars to the educational results of their students.

Establishment higher education lobbyists vehemently fought the proposed regulations. They compared their potential impact to that of No Child Left Behind and said that they amounted to a de facto federal takeover of higher education curricula.

Critics came from the conservative side of the aisle as well. The National Association of Scholars’s Peter Wood, a supporter of the liberal arts and more rigorous core curricula, said that the Education Department’s emphasis on assessment was “a distraction and, at worse, a menace” that presumed that experts could correctly identify which skills should be obtained from a given course.

But perhaps the biggest dagger to Spellings’ regulatory reform proposal came from Senator Lamar Alexander—a former Education Secretary and former president of the University of Tennessee. In a statement to Spellings, he said that, even though he agreed that accountability was important, Congress had the constitutional authority to regulate such matters, not the Education Department.

The political momentum opposing the regulations proved to be overwhelming; Congress eventually scrapped Spellings’ proposals, including one that would have created a federal database of student information based on retention rates, graduation rates, and transcripts.

In another controversy during Spellings’ tenure at the Department of Education, Diane Auer Jones, a senior official, resigned in protest in 2008. Jones cited concerns about the department’s lack of appreciation for the liberal arts and excessive emphasis on satisfying the narrow needs of businesses.

Shortly after resigning, she told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Spellings had adopted a relatively loose approach to accreditation reform, preferring that colleges develop their own standards and be critiqued accordingly. Other top officials, however, preferred “bright-line,” top-down standards, which created departmental tension.

Jones was especially upset at the department’s treatment of the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), a conservative-leaning accreditation body that, since the early 1990s, has emphasized Western civilization, the humanities, and rigorous general education requirements. Most important, it permitted new schools an alternative route to accreditation, enabling them to receive federal aid. 

In 2007, the department stripped AALE of its federal authorization on the basis that it had inadequately measured student performance via graduation rates, test scores, and so forth. The ban was eventually lifted, but it nonetheless delivered a significant blow to AALE.

That is not to say Spellings’ tenure at the Education Department came entirely to naught. For instance, the creation of the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) was motivated largely by the Spellings Commission.

The VSA is a consortium of roughly 300 colleges and universities that has pushed for greater transparency in higher education, including better student learning outcomes. It operates College Portraits, a website that keeps tabs on a variety of information, including results from employer surveys and “competency-based” tests such as the ETS Proficiency Profile and Collegiate Learning Assessment. Such tests measure students’ broad learning gains over time, and demonstrate how well colleges are preparing them for the white-collar workforce.

Other than her support for outcomes and accountability, what views does Spellings hold in regard to higher education? Her responses from a 2010 debate at the National Press Club that focused on the resolution, “To remain a world class economic power, the U.S. workforce needs more college graduates,” offer illumination:

  • “As our country grows more diverse, we must do what we Americans have never done before—and that is find ways for more people of color to enter and successfully complete college.”
  • On socioeconomic affirmative action vs. traditional, race-based affirmative action: “I think both can be used. We need to make sure every kid of every color is academically prepared to be successful in whatever they want to do in life, including choosing college. And we’re a long way from doing that.”
  • “We have to get beyond this idea that we’re going to have a veterinary school or an education school or a medical school or a law school or a Spanish program on every street corner in America. We can’t do it like that anymore. We’ve got to use technology and be economically sensible about how we offer coursework.” 

Spellings, a University of Houston graduate (bachelor’s in political science) and former member of the Apollo Group’s board of directors (Apollo is the parent company of the University of Phoenix), told reporters last Friday that she supports online higher education alternatives. 

“You name it, we need it,” she said. “Because we have lots of work to do to reach the kind of [degree] attainment that we need. So I don’t think we should be threatened by that. That industry [online for-profit colleges] invented higher education that was more convenient for many working adults, [and] many in traditional higher education have responded.”

As Spellings prepares to take the reins of the UNC system, she’ll have to navigate a fractured state higher education system. At her press conference, however, she showed signs that she may not grasp how deep the divisions go or how limited her initial support may be.

For one thing, she may face intense faculty resistance. But Spellings rejected that possibility: “I expect the faculty to react well to my appointment. And I have skills that are different from theirs. I’m not an academic and I’m not a teacher. I’m not a researcher. I’m somebody who understands public policymaking. I understand advocacy and how to bring people together around a shared mission…. I’d ask [faculty] to give me a chance. I’m thrilled to be working with them,” she said. 

But her “different skill set,” along with her long association with the Bush family and her involvement as a board member of a for-profit university, are not likely to endear her to UNC’s largely left-leaning faculty.

For example, at last Friday’s Board of Governors meeting, Altha Cravey, a geography professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, referred to Spellings as a “political hack” who wants to turn the UNC system into a vocational training system. 

Furthermore, Spellings’s emphasis on learning outcomes is viewed very negatively by many faculty. Stephen Leonard, the head of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, has suggested that it could create conflict in the future.

And she may also be mistaken about how the UNC system is supposed to work. When asked about her perception of the role of the Governors in the UNC system, she told the Pope Center that, going forward, she plans to “work with the Board of Governors to bring them together around shared goals, [and] to be about results over process.” 

Disregard for the importance of process is not what is needed in a new UNC president. Processes are how a system curtails executive excesses, and there is a raging public debate about that very topic at this very moment—in a large part over Spellings’s appointment. It would be best if she listened to those on the board who believe that maintaining good procedures with proper checks and balances is essential to good governance of a university system. Her road could be very rocky if she fails to give more voice to dissident members of the board.

Still, in many ways, Spellings brings a breath of fresh air to a system that badly needs change in a broad range of issues. We wish her the best and hope she can quickly surmount any initial difficulties.