For the past three years, Margaret Spellings has been happily at work on a college campus. For a native Texan who loves books and relishes public policy, coming to work each day at Southern Methodist University, home of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, has been an idyllic job.

But when the University of North Carolina came calling, Spellings didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve been mouthing off about access and affordability and achievement gaps in higher education for decades now,” she said. “This is my chance to roll up my sleeves and really do something about it.”

Mouthing off is a more formal process when you’re the United States Secretary of Education, as Spellings was from 2005 to 2009. One of her earliest and best-known initiatives was a comprehensive report on the state of higher education, an effort that became known as the Spellings Commission.

That study helped define both the ambitions and challenges facing American colleges and universities. Many of its key findings remain touchstones for Spellings: better preparation for low-income and minority students, stronger financial aid, and a focus on student outcomes. The commission’s report focused attention on access and accountability, issues that have emerged front-and-center in debates about higher education in North Carolina.

“The Spellings Commission really put a national spotlight on some of the things we’ve always cared about in North Carolina,” said UNC President Emeritus Erskine Bowles. “Like trying to keep tuition low, to make sure that college is a good value for students and families and state taxpayers. Margaret is all about access, affordability and accountability.”

Margaret Spellings with President's Bush and Clinton

The University of North Carolina has long been recognized as one of the strongest public systems in the country, with a history of solid public support. That’s part of what drew Spellings to the job.

But she also sees plenty of opportunity to broaden access and improve student performance.

“The United States leads the world in innovation and discovery, and we have made the globe a better place along the way,” she said. “Our task now is to provide post-secondary education for many more people, particularly first-generation, low-income, and minority students. We’ve never done that as well as we could, and it’s high time to get better.”

She comes to that view from many years of experience at all levels of public education, starting with her own childhood in Texas. One of four sisters, she attended Houston public schools and worked her way through the University of Houston, a diverse public campus in the heart of the city. “It’s a campus full of people who are married, who are working, who are first-generation students,” she recalled. “It’s a big, urban university with people from all kind of backgrounds.”

Spellings was a commuter student, living at home and driving to campus each day to keep costs down. “I worked all the way through high school and college at a grocery store called Handy Andy’s,” she recalled. “Those were the days when you could just write a check for your tuition and your books.”

Political science became her major largely because it fit well with her schedule. But she ended up fascinated by the policymaking process. “I just fell in love with it,” she said. “My parents, of course, were skeptical that I could ever make a living doing public policy. But it’s mostly worked out.”

Spellings noted that her own daughters have had very different college experiences, both attending as full-time, on-campus students. “They’ve done well — they’re both working and emancipated, so I can’t complain,” Spellings said. “I’m happy for them, but I also know what a huge sacrifice it is for many families to give their kids that kind of experience. It’s not as attainable as it should be.”

Making her way in Texas politics, Spellings rose to become a policy advisor to then-Governor George W. Bush, along the way serving in policy and government-relations roles for the Texas Association of School Boards and Austin Community College.

Margaret Spellings

“She’s always been able to find common ground, particularly around education,” said Tom Luce, a longtime education advocate who worked closely with Spellings for decades. “She’s so sincere about making sure public education works for everybody, not just a few. That has really been a fundamental principle for her going back more than 30 years.”

Following the 2000 presidential election, Spellings moved to Washington to serve as the domestic policy advisor in the White House, where she spearheaded initiatives on everything from education to immigration reform to HIV/AIDs. 

Her appointment as Secretary of Education put her in charge of a $70-billion agency, one that touches the lives of students in every part of the country. From her earliest days in the role, she focused intently on the yawning gap in educational outcomes based on race, family income, and parental background. Those achievement gaps are both personal tragedies and a national shame, Spellings has long argued.

“Secretary Spellings is not a newcomer to the fight for equity,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports students at historically black colleges and universities across the country. “Her efforts to increase the size and availability of need-based grants during the Bush years helped make college a reality for thousands of young people.”

Returning to Texas to run the Presidential Center and official library in Dallas, Spellings kept up her advocacy on achievement gaps and educational access. She has been a frequent commencement speaker across the country, often calling on students to recognize their own good fortune and pay it forward. 

“It is our duty to help those who haven’t attained an education to get one,” she told graduates of Colorado Technical College in 2013. “That’s your last assignment. It expires when you do.”

Even in her personal life, Spellings has remained fully engaged in higher education. After she got the UNC job, her book club in Dallas picked Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members as their next read. The book is a darkly sympathetic sendup of academic life, written as a series of exasperated recommendation letters from an English professor beset by crumbling facilities, demanding students, and scheming administrators. (Sample signature line: “Yours in dire camaraderie,”).

“My book club chose the book for my benefit, and I loved it,” Spellings said with a self-aware smile. “It was hilarious, even if it wasn’t especially flattering to university administrators.”

Indeed, the book refers to them repeatedly as “The Overlords.” That’s a label Spellings is determined to avoid.

“Her efforts to increase the size and availability of need-based grants during the Bush years helped make college a reality for thousands of the young people.” — Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., Thurgood Marshall College Fund

In her early remarks to Board members and faculty, she has been careful to note that the core business of the University isn’t in the back office. “I know that not one student is educated, nor is one patient served at the system office or in this boardroom,” Spellings told members of the UNC Board of Governors. “The real work of this enterprise happens in university classrooms, hospitals and research laboratories around this state, and it rests in the capable hands of faculty, staff, and institutional leaders.”

Defining the right role for the University system’s chief executive will mean listening closely to students, faculty, and staff, and serving as an advocate for their needs. Spellings sees the UNC presidency as a chance to speak on behalf of public education in the broadest sense.

She is beginning her presidency with a statewide tour of every UNC campus and affiliate, offering a chance to learn about the University and her new home state. She plans to do a lot of listening in order to “learn what we’re doing well, and how we can elevate it.”

“This is a policy job, an advocacy job, a communications job,” she said of the UNC Presidency. “It’s a very different role from being a chancellor or a faculty member, and I’m thrilled to be doing it.”

She’s also thrilled to be settling into small-town life in North Carolina, after a career that has taken her from Houston to Austin to Washington to Dallas. Chapel Hill is likely to be a quieter home, and that’s fine by Spellings.

“What I’m really looking forward to is all of the natural beauty,” she said. “Dallas, as much as I enjoy it, is this massive and sprawling city. If you want to go for a walk in the woods — which I love to do — it’s not so easy.”

Spellings has plenty of places to go for a stroll in Chapel Hill, though she won’t have much time to explore them in the next few months. Her statewide listening tour kicks off immediately, and she plans to see all 17 campuses within her first hundred days.

Luckily, a little bit of Tar Heel nature will come along with her. Like any good traveler, she’s bringing each campus a housewarming gift — a North Carolina dogwood, with plenty of potential for growth.

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