Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s second Secretary of Education and a woman responsible for much of the early efforts to implement the the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, will be the next president of the University of North Carolina system.

The selection of Spellings, who has never run an academic system before, is a little controversial. But the way some academics are talking about this is odd. Apparently she’s somehow too political. According to this article at Inside Higher Education:

Spellings… has the support of Governor Pat McCrory, whom she met with this month. She is the only candidate who met with the full Board of Governors or McCrory. Her selection is one more in a string of high-profile system selections nationally in which boards appear, particularly at the system level, to emphasize political acumen over academic experience.

Academics, understandably, are annoyed because they were left out of the process. This is a common problem academics have with the selection of college administrators.


Spellings doesn’t have any particular love for higher education. Indeed, during her time at the Department of Education the administration published a report that complained that “American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”

Academics might also be concerned because Spellings has no really impressive achievements in her career and basically owes her professional success to serving as the loyal aid to one of the worst presidents in American history.

But then the professors get creative. According to the Inside Higher Ed piece:

Charles Reed, former chancellor of the California State University System, said in choosing Spellings — and in coordinating a meeting with the state’s governor but not consulting with system faculty members — the Board of Governors is clearly displaying preference for someone with experience with the political process, rather than in academe.

Well sure, but that’s always true. When we’re talking about leading a public university, experience with the political process is really, really important. The success or failure of a college president, in truth, doesn’t have a damn thing to do with academic output or research.

It’s really all about fundraising, and hiring someone who ran the department of education for four years, and has access (of a sort) to all of that nice juicy GOP money might be a very, very good financial decision for UNC.

Spellings has no apparent interest in or concern for the rights of academics, or what they need and want. Spellings said she plans to lead “productive, accountable, agile and transparent” university system,” whatever that means.

But no one should be surprised or bothered that UNC picked a non-academic, “someone with experience with the political process,” to run the system.

Indeed, it’s not even that big a transition. Spellings’s predecessor at UNC, Tom Ross, wasn’t an academic, either. He was a lawyer, a congressional chief of staff and a state judge before he got the UNC job. Ross succeed Erskine Bowles, who had earlier served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. The consolidated UNC system, in fact, hasn’t ever had a real academic, someone with an actual PhD, as president. And it probably never will.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer