CHAPEL HILL – Margaret Spellings gets higher education – she champions the education of a broader cross-section of North Carolinians.
Regrettably, though, Spellings announced last week that she will leave next year as President of the University of North Carolina System.
“North Carolina’s public universities are the lifeblood of the state,” she said as she announced her departure.
“They are pillars of communities, drivers of economies, and paths to opportunity for people of every age and background. The state’s commitment to higher education is what drew me here three years ago, and it’s what propelled me forward every day on the job.”1
Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, has placed an emphasis on access and affordability in an age of increasing demand for educated workers. At her inauguration, she even pronounced higher education “a new civil right.”2
Spellings also recognizes the need not just to get in, but to get out of college. Students need to complete their degrees, and improving graduation rates is one of the goals of Higher Expectations, the strategic plan Spellings developed for the University System.3
Rather than a one-size-fits-all view of our state’s public universities, she understands the unique role each of our 17 campuses plays.
Recognizing that some groups are under-represented, the plan that was unanimously adopted by the UNC Board of Governors places an emphasis on increasing the percentage of rural, minority, first-generation and low-income students on university campuses.
Spellings also recognizes that not every student will be fresh out of high school – her plan emphasizes the need to build more “on ramps” to the university through community colleges, re-enrollment of “part-way home” students, and other innovative pathways.
With her background, her values and her political sensibilities, it’s difficult to understand why things didn’t work out for Spellings. She had potential to be a great President of the UNC System, and it’s unfortunate her presidency didn’t last longer – North Carolina’s loss will be Texas’ gain.
But the UNC System remains – as Spellings calls it – the greatest asset North Carolina has.
SO THE ANNOUNCEMENT yesterday that Dr. William L. Roper will serve as Interim President4 starting Jan. 1 is welcome – Roper is a calming, reassuring presence who has extensive experience as an administrator in academia, health care and government.
Roper served as the administrator overseeing Medicare and Medicaid during the Reagan Administration. Later, under President George H.W. Bush, he served as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.5
He joined UNC-Chapel Hill as Dean of the School of Public Health in 1997. In 2004, he became CEO of UNC Health Care, Dean of the School of Medicine and Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs.
Under Roper’s leadership, UNC Health Care and the UNC School of Medicine have become one of the nation’s top academic medical institutions.
UNC Health Care has expanded statewide to include more than a dozen hospitals, more than 30,000 employees and nearly $5 billion in annual revenue. Total research funding has increased more than 50 percent, to $441 million last year. Roper also expanded the geographic reach of the medical school, arranging for students to train in Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington.6
Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said he looked for someone with experience managing “a very complex asset” to serve as the system’s interim president.
“Bill has done that at the highest levels of success,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s anyone more qualified than Bill Roper in managing an asset of this magnitude.”
Roper thanked Spellings for her “amazing leadership,” and added: “I know that whatever success I may have will in large part be due to the things she has already done and the things that she has put in motion.”
Roper pronounced the UNC System “a precious resource for North Carolina” and recited a long list of things the system does for the state, from world-class research to educating undergraduates to growing the economy and advancing civic life.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been a team effort – and this surely is,” he said.