Margaret Spellings' For-Profit (and Discriminatory) Past

The growing trend toward secret presidential searches and the emerging tendency of governing boards to appoint corporate executives or politicians with no experience in higher education has gained considerable attention on this blog (see for examples the University of Iowa and the University of Missouri, the latter with well-known disastrous consequences).

One recent example is the controversial decision of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors to appoint Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration, as system president, which has led faculty to raise significant questions about her past and fitness to lead a major public university system.  On November 2, Altha Cravey, associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Robert Siegel, associate professor of English at East Carolina University, published an op-ed piece in the Raleigh News & Observer criticizing the appointment.  The following are some excerpts from that essay:

Although our fellow university professors have become used to the UNC Board of Governors’ wrong-headed priorities when it comes to higher education in North Carolina, the board’s chaotic scramble to hire former Bush administration bureaucrat Margaret Spellings as system president represents a disturbing new low.

Spellings’ selection process was so rocky that Board Chairman John Fennebresque was forced to resign the following Monday. But in the aftermath of the board’s rushed and controversial decision, Margaret Spellings’ résumé raises serious questions about her commitment to UNC’s tradition of an affordable college education. . . .

UNC needs a president who will help the university system continue to give students the best education possible while avoiding unnecessary tuition hikes. Unfortunately, Spellings’ background of supporting for-profit colleges who prey on students – and then profiting off those same students when they default on their loans – suggests that she and the Board of Governors have very distinct priorities.

Spellings made over $330,000 working for the Apollo Group, the parent company of University of Phoenix, a for-profit online college that has been widely criticized for taking advantage of its students and delivering poor results. Although federal education funds account for nearly 90 percent of the company’s revenue, graduation rates were as low as 4 percent under Spellings’ tenure.

The Apollo Group’s corporate goals are to increase shareholders’ profits by lowering standards and raising admission and fees. The company has even come under fire for targeting veterans to obtain G.I. Bill funding. After a federal investigation into the Apollo Group’s practices, the for-profit company laid off 600 workers and closed 115 “campuses” – while its founder received a $5 million “retirement bonus.” . . .

That’s why it is particularly troubling that Spellings also served as board chair of the Ceannate Corporation, a student loan collection agency. Student loan debt now accounts for the highest percentage of consumer debt, and despite widespread calls to reform the student loan industry, Spellings and the Ceannate Corporation have simply profited off of it. . . .

Spellings’ defense of for-profit colleges is perhaps just as disturbing as the predatory practices these institutions use to fleece students. “(For-profit colleges) invented higher education in a way that was more convenient for working adults, and many in traditional higher education have responded,” she told the Board of Governors. “The reason I did it was because I learned a lot about how we can serve our students and think of them as customers in providing a product in convenient ways for them.”

In a state that claims to value public education and prides itself on a top-notch university system, students should not be viewed as “customers” to profit from and then discard. In treating higher education merely as a “business,” instead of one of the most worthwhile investments a society can possibly make, the Spellings choice reflects priorities that are the opposite of what our university system needs. . . .

Also on November 2, Glenda Gilmore, the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale University and a UNC alumna, published an op-ed piece in the Charlotte Observer, which raised another question about Spellings’ appointment.  Wrote Gilmore:

At an October 23 press conference, recently appointed UNC President Margaret Spellings declared a conflict of interest with her new responsibilities. UNC Policy 501 (a) states that, as president, she is “responsible for the presentation and interpretation of all University policies.” That means that she must use public funds to uphold the UNC policy to provide “an inclusive and welcoming environment” regardless of an individual’s “sexual orientation” and to prevent “discrimination, harassment, or retaliation” against students, staff, or faculty, regardless of sexual orientation.

Spellings seems unwilling to do that. When asked at the press conference about her past comments regarding gay citizens, she responded, “I’m not going to comment on those lifestyles.” Then she explained her demand as Secretary of Education that PBS refund federal money spent on the animated program Buster the Bunny because it included four gay characters among many. Her opposition, she said, was “a matter of how we use taxpayer dollars.”

Part of her job as president of UNC will be to “use taxpayer dollars” to foster a welcoming environment and combat discrimination based on sexual orientation. Moreover, she actually has the responsibility to “comment on those lifestyles” by demonstratively welcoming them to UNC.

North Carolina’s taxpayers, including those who are lesbian and gay, can save themselves a lot of trouble and expense by putting the question directly to Spellings before she is inaugurated: “Will you spend taxpayer money to provide an inclusive environment and defend from discrimination all of your constituents, regardless of sexual orientation?” If she again indicates that she will not, she has no choice but to resign.

3 thoughts on “Margaret Spellings' For-Profit (and Discriminatory) Past

  1. Perhaps it may degrade the memory of Jesse Helms to repeat what he has been credited for in many places, that the letters UNC stood for “University of Negroes and Communists.” This view, however, seems to have prevailed in the North Carolina General Assembly and its Republican-packed UNC Board of Governors, with the Spellings presidency intended as a corrective.

    –Tom Kirby-Smith

  2. Pingback: Education: Where the “Customer” is the “Product” | The Academe Blog

  3. Heard Margaret Spellings on public radio at noon today where they quoted the graduation rate for Phoenix students as being 7%……but Mrs Spellings said she couldn’t remember the graduation rate while she was a director on that board……hmmmm…some board member…that’s a pretty important piece of info not to remember, particularly when you are posturing as an advocate for students…I guess $300,000 buys a lot of selective amnesia…….if 4% IS the graduation rate during her tenure….well, wow…doesn’t that say it all….especially since she’s still an apologist for Phoenix…not a very suspicious start in my book…..especially when she’s saying how much she values transparency……

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