CHAPEL HILL – Dick Spangler understood the role our public universities play in North Carolina – and why it’s essential that all North Carolinians have access to them.
Clemmie Dixon Spangler Jr., a billionaire businessman from Charlotte who served as president of the University of North Carolina System from 1986 to 1997, died Sunday at age 86.
Spangler had the unenviable task of following the revered William Friday as president of the university system, but he stepped up to it and brought his business sensibilities with him.
He insisted that the legislature and the universities abide by the state’s constitutional mandate for low tuition: “as far as practicable … free of expense.” In fact, he made sure a citation of the constitutional provision – Article IX, Section 9 – appears in the background of his official portrait that hangs at the system office in Chapel Hill.
Spangler once walked out of a meeting with the budget director for a certain governor who proposed to increase university tuition, declaring, “We’re not raising tuition.”
Low tuition, he said, helped him attend the University of North Carolina from 1950 to 1954.
“Low tuition is not a gift,” Spangler told The Associated Press in 1997. “It’s an investment in these students. They go to work and pay that back over a lifetime.”1
Current UNC President Margaret Spellings called Spangler “a giant of our state.”
“He believed in the power of education to change lives and transform a state, and he made those possibilities into reality through his life’s work. The first in his family to go to college, Dick never forgot who our public universities were meant to serve. North Carolina is the prosperous, growing state that it is because of principled leaders like Dick.”
Wyndham Robertson, who served on Spangler’s staff from 1986 to 1995, recalled that Spangler considered the president’s job the best in the world.
“Dick Spangler fought against tuition increases, understanding that many North Carolinians can’t afford what others consider the modest cost of attending a state university,” Robertson said.
Former UNC President Erskine Bowles called Spangler “a leader like no other.”
“Fortunately for all of us, the enormous good he did will live on. He was strong, forthright, thoughtful and caring. Throughout his life he never varied a degree from his true north in any decision he made or in any relationship he had,” Bowles said.
Under Spangler’s leadership, the University implemented system-wide admissions requirements and reforms intended to improve the integrity of athletic programs. He also sparked an exhaustive review of the basic academic missions of the 16 campuses, and external funds for research more than tripled during his tenure, according to the UNC System.
Spangler worked unpaid as president. He and his family foundation have also given generously to the state’s public universities, funding more than 120 distinguished professorships across the 16 institutions.2 His daughter Anna Spangler Nelson serves today as a member of the UNC Board of Governors.
Our University has been blessed by great leadership. Dick Spangler was among the best – he brought his business experience and sound judgment to the job. Current President Margaret Spellings follows in some big footprints.
Our leaders have been great because they have been given freedom to act and strong support from the Board of Governors, legislators and the leaders of this state. That is a sound formula to which we should adhere.