The Attempted Intimidation of Margaret Spellings

Even before she assumes control of the University of North Carolina system, former Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has become a lightening rod for attacks by faculty, students, and activists on the left. These attacks include hostile op-ed articles in the state’s newspapers, disruptive protests calling for her resignation, and several UNC faculty bodies questioning her fitness to lead.

The opposition often borders on the unhinged. At one Board of Governors meeting (the governing body of the UNC system), protestors provoked security into restoring order with force. To listen to some of the complaints, it seems as if she will usher in a right-wing agenda that stops just short of a Spenserian survival-of-the-fittest contest—rigged, of course, to promote a power structure that favors straight white males. Or perhaps, the “people’s university” will be converted into a tool of corporate interests.

One common refrain is that her appointment was “partisan.” But when her actual past activities and credentials are examined, it becomes clear that her opposition—rather than Spellings, as some claim—are the partisan ones.

Certainly, some of Spellings’s prior actions were of a nature guaranteed to raise the hackles of liberals. But claims that her appointment is too politicized for her to serve should be judged in light of her two predecessors’ resumes before they assumed control of the UNC system. Both of them, Thomas Ross, who was president from 2011 through 2015, and Erskine Bowles, whose tenure lasted from 2006 through 2010, had close ties to the Democrat Party.

In fact, both spent part of their careers as chiefs of staff for Democratic politicians. Bowles was not only a two-time Democratic Senatorial candidate, but chief of staff for President Clinton. Ross’s term as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is extremely telling. For the Foundation made a sharp left turn while Ross was in charge, and today is the lead funding agency for North Carolina’s far left.

Despite their political affiliations, there was no demand by conservatives that they should step down because their political beliefs disqualified them for the job. Conservative groups applauded Bowles’ appointment at the time. And if they gave Ross a less-than-warm welcome, they did not say he was unfit for the job by virtue of his politics. It is one thing to decry the likely direction a public figure’s leadership will take, or to examine his record, and another to demand his resignation because his politics do not mesh with one’s own.

Furthermore, on many issues, it is the political right that should be disappointed with the selection of Spellings. Her thinking tends to line up much more with the centrist Democrat Bowles (who applauded her appointment) than with conservative reformers.

One can also make the case that she is more qualified for the job than either Bowles or Ross were, for her prior experience in education dwarfs theirs. Bowles’s prior educational experience was only as a student. Ross was president of Davidson College for three years and five months, seven months less than Spellings performed the much larger and more complex job of Education Secretary. Before that, she worked in a variety of educational capacities in Texas, albeit in K-12 instead of higher education. Her post-Education Secretary experience in the for-profit and student loan industries should be considered a plus, not a minus, as it permitted her to see higher education from a different perspective.

The main other complaints against Spellings’ appointment are focused on five central themes. They are:

  • The process by which she was selected.
  • Her association with the for-profit education sector.
  • Her tendency to reduce, rather than grow, federal education department budgets and grants.
  • Her emphasis on outcomes testing as Education Secretary.
  • Her reaction to a publicly funded cartoon that featured gay parents.

As for her selection process, many were upset that it was neither transparent nor broadly inclusive. They were also angry that the Republican-dominated Board of Governors opted to not continue her Democrat-appointed predecessor’s presidency beyond the normal (set by precedent) five-year period. But the entire affair adhered to the law as it was written—her selection is legally valid. And UNC presidents serve at the pleasure of the Board.

There were no complaints about leaving the faculty out of the process when Bowles and Ross were appointed, however. And faculty input is not necessarily good governance in such a decision. Rather, the system was wisely created to give the determination of the president to the Governors in part to balance the natural power of the faculty, to ensure that they do not run rampant over the system.

She has indeed supported and participated in the for-profit higher education industry. But that is hardly a disqualification for a high-level job in public higher education. Consider some of the “accusations” leveled at her by Faculty Forward, one of the UNC groups arrayed against her. (To be sure, Faculty Forward is an arm of the Service Employees International Union that aggressively seeks to organize faculty of all ranks. SEIU is well-known for its confrontational, occasionally violent tactics, along with its affiliation with the Democratic Party.)

  • She “supported the successful elimination of the 50 Percent Rule, which required colleges receiving Title IV funds” be at least 50 percent “campus-based.”
  • She was a “director of the University of Phoenix’s parent company during multiple investigations” and 115 Phoenix campus closures.”
  • Spellings also served on an advisory board for CEANNATE Corporation, which works with for-profit colleges “to lower their student loan default rates.”

While people who are inclined to mistrust the free market may see something untoward in those actions, many perceive the actions of Democratic politicians taken against the for-profit sector to have been a purposeful “witch-hunt” intended to protect government higher education institutions from competition. In many cases, for-profit schools were investigated even though their practices and outcomes were little different from schools in the public sector. And the for-profit sector has been a great source of educational innovation.

Additionally, the suggestion that her advisory role with CEANNATE disqualifies Spellings from heading a university system boggles the mind. Is it wrong to advise companies how to improve their performance?

Another accusation hurled against Spellings by Faculty Forward is that she used her position “to accelerate the corporatization of public higher education.”

This is another specious attack. What her critics object to is her attempt to find meaningful outcome measurements for higher education and her emphasis on higher education as a training ground for professional careers (a perspective overwhelmingly shared by students). While one may prefer not to measure outcomes or to reject higher education’s vocational orientation, placing great importance on such matters is hardly irrational.

But Faculty Forward’s objection that she “did not protect her department funding as Education Secretary” may indeed be illogical.

Spellings in general reduced federal money flowing to higher education and to her department. In fact, her frugality should be a cause for celebration—the head of a government department who voluntarily reduced her budget is a welcome rarity. The fact that “the Bush administration’s budget for higher education declined by 24 percent after Spellings was appointed ED Secretary” suggests that she eliminated considerable fat, not that she failed to serve taxpayers in some manner.

Differing visions are clearly responsible for the attacks on Spellings for her supposed “homophobia.” This label was attached to her early in her tenure as Education Secretary when she objected to a PBS cartoon that received Education Department funding. The show depicted children with lesbian parents; the crux of Spellings argument was that parents may not wish for children at the young ages targeted by the show to be exposed to gay lifestyles.

Spellings’s position is entirely reasonable. There was no compelling reason for the show to have gay families other than to expose the audience of young children to gay families. A refusal to give official approval of something does not necessarily mean personal disapproval; in this case, her comments merely stated the majority view that discussion of gay lifestyles should be reserved for the parents of small children.

Even so, accusations of her being biased against homosexuals have intensified—because she has not bent to her critics’ demands that she openly embrace the left’s stance on gender issues. Glenda Gilmore, a Yale history professor who was educated at UNC schools, insisted in a Charlotte Observer article that Spellings “has the responsibility to ‘comment on those lifestyles’ by demonstratively welcoming them to UNC.”

That is a false, over-reaching, political activist interpretation of an administrator’s role. There is no requirement—official or implicit—for a system president to comment on everybody’s choice of lifestyle to “welcome them to UNC.” Is it necessary for her to comment positively on UNC’s Wiccans because they are Wiccans?

It is instead her job follow the law and not discriminate: to make sure the system does not fire employees because they are gay, to make sure students are not rejected for admission because they are gay, and so on. There is no indication anywhere of Spellings exhibiting bias toward any demographic group.

What is really going on is a political battle that has little to do with Spellings and everything to do with politics. Given the acceptance of the partisan backgrounds of Bowles and Ross, partisanship as a concept is not the problem for Spellings’s detractors. Almost everybody who achieves a high political office in this country does so as a member of one of the two major parties—party affiliation is nearly unavoidable. The problem for Spellings’s opponents, then, is not partisanship, but that she is a member of the wrong party, and that she accordingly favors some polices that her opponents do not like.

The faculty left has long controlled the universities, and their hold is threatened in North Carolina. Underlying faculty claims for control of the university is a call to public service. This was the fundamental principle of the American Association of University Professors’ right to academic freedom, as expressed by founder Alexander Meiklejohn:

We, who engage in research and teaching, do so as agents of the people of the nation … Our final responsibility, as scholars and teachers, is not to the truth. It is to the people who need the truth.”

But this perspective implies the existence of a hypothetical “people” that does not exist.  What of the actual people? What if the actual people reserve the right to decide how the university should serve them rather than yielding to the wishes of a hypothetical people of the faculty’s invention? For in recent years, the actual people of North Carolina have soundly rejected the loud agenda emanating from the faculty senates and the protest lines by voting Republican. With their vote came an expectation of change from the longstanding Democrat status quo, the university system included.

To that, we can only say that it is good that we do not live in a country where only one set of beliefs is acceptable. Let us hope that Spellings sees the attacks, demands, threats, and posturing for what they’re worth: an attempt to intimidate her into acquiescence to the leftist faculty’s agenda. And that she defies that intimidation in order to govern according to facts and reason.