Since taking office in March, University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings has faced small but insistent protests about her perceived agenda for public higher education.
And at every opportunity, she has gone out of her way to meet those protesters and talk through their concerns. It’s not easy to walk toward people who are chanting their opposition and waving picket posters, but Spellings has done it time and again.
At East Carolina University, she greeted a line of student activists with a handshake and a conversation. At UNC Asheville, she leaned in to hear from student leaders who were nearly drowned out by shouting classmates. At NC State, she went out of her way to meet with a handful of activists outside the student union, assuring them she wants a welcoming environment for all students.
“To the protesters who have devoted their time and energy to criticizing me, I say: I hear you,” Spellings said last month. “What I ask in return is that you hear from me.”
To those who take time to listen, Spellings has been making a lot of sense:
- She has pushed for greater investment in faculty and staff.
- She has celebrated the importance of historically black colleges and universities.
- She has called on policymakers to hold the University accountable while giving campus leaders more freedom to make decisions.
- And she has emphasized that more North Carolinians need affordable, accessible higher education.
“There is great work happening on our campuses, and I have been using these visits as an opportunity to celebrate and draw attention to that work. I’ve been listening to students and faculty, and I’ve been advocating for them,” she said last month. ”Too often, the loudest voices on all sides have served to distract us from the mission rather than to elevate it, which I think is regrettable.”
No distraction has been greater than House Bill 2. Spellings said the law, which limits bathroom access for transgender students and places restrictions on nondiscrimination policies, has had a “chilling effect” on campuses.
“We pride ourselves as institutions of diversity, inclusion, academic freedom, free speech, free expression,” she told WRAL-TV.
The rancor has obscured a deep well of goodwill and consensus about University priorities. In conversations with faculty, staff and students on every campus, affordability and student success rise to the top:
- There is agreement that campuses must do more to rein in costs, and continued state support will be a major factor in keeping tuition and fees low.
- There’s consensus that graduation rates can improve, and that better data analysis and advising are crucial to that effort.
- There is a sense that universities need to do more to communicate their value to students and policymakers.
“As I keep telling faculty, staff and students on each of our campuses, I am here to serve as your chief advocate and the spokesperson for your work,” Spellings told the UNC Board of Governors.
But divisive issues like HB2 interfere. A legislative agenda focused on common-sense concerns like faculty pay has been drowned out by needless confrontation over bathroom regulation.
Students and families are interested in keeping college affordable and keeping public higher education strong.
They have a University President who is eager to have that conversation, if and when the shouting dies down.