Margaret Spellings UNC-TV

UNC System President Margaret Spellings (right) talks with UNC-TV's Deborah Holt Noel in February.

UNC System boss Margaret Spellings last week marked her second year on the job.

I’ll leave it to others (aka columnists, commentators and Twitter) to decide whether her 730-day tenure as leader of the state university system has been good or bad or somewhere in between. My take: It definitely hasn’t been dull.

To mark the anniversary, Spellings chatted briefly with WRAL and the Higher Education Works Foundation and sat down for a longer talk with UNC-TV. That video is here; an excerpt is here.

Spellings and I talked by phone for about 30 minutes Thursday. Here’s a little bit of what was on her mind:

On the upcoming legislative session: The General Assembly comes back to Raleigh on May 16 for its every-other-year short session. The Board of Governors won’t put together its legislative to-do list until March. But Spellings said she’ll be keeping an eye on whether the legislature keeps its promises. (Here is the conference committee report that puts dollar figures on various programs; the UNC System stuff starts on page 57.)

Among them: The 2017 state budget includes $8 million in 2018-19 to help the UNC System upgrade its data collection and data management systems. It also gives $2.5 million to help N.C. A&T hire more faculty for its doctoral programs and sets aside $11 million for a reserve fund to cover enrollment growth at the three NC Promise schools. (More on that program in a minute.)

The one dark cloud in 2018-19 is a $7 million budget cut to be spread among most UNC schools. Spellings said she wants to see if state lawmakers might rethink that.

On NC Promise: Three UNC schools (Elizabeth City State, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina) will offer deep tuition discounts starting next fall — $500 per semester for North Carolina residents, $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students. This program ain’t cheap. State lawmakers are spending $51 million next year to cover the lost tuition revenue, plus another $11 million in case enrollment beats projections.

Spellings notes that all three schools say freshman applications are way up this year. “There’s a big appetite for affordability that will help their ability to have a really high quality student body,” Spellings said. If these schools can recruit more accomplished students, she added, retention rates and graduation rates should improve.

There aren’t any immediate plans to expand the program, Spellings said, but she added that Fayetteville State is interested. It’s partly because what she called “competitive pressures” — that is, a couple of competing schools (Elizabeth City and Pembroke) can offer much lower prices than FSU.

On Harry Smith: Word on the street is that Smith, an East Carolina grad and former CEO of a filter company, will be elected the next chairman of the UNC Board of Governors in May. (He’s vice chairman now.) Spellings called Smith “smart, hard-working, energetic. He does his homework. He’s a strategic thinker.”

Can you work with him? “You bet. He’s going to be a great partner. I’m looking forward to working with him.”

For more on Smith, Business North Carolina did a long feature on him in January. Smith also talked recently with Pirate Radio 1250, which covers all things ECU.

On myFutureNC: Spellings is co-chair of this new group that hopes to educate more North Carolina residents. The commission met in Winston-Salem last month (here’s a video of a UNC demographer talking about educational attainment) and held a listening session in Greensboro last week. “We have super-siloed systems in this state,” Spellings said. “We need to challenge ourselves to make it easy to move from one system to the next” — that is, from high school to college, or from a community college to a state university.

On what keeps her up at night: Three big issues in higher ed — value, price and relevance. “The public sector is a challenging place to be,” Spellings said. “There’s a lot of anxiety in the air.” Higher ed, she added, deals with two things that are very personal to a lot of people: their children and their money.

Speaking of the value of higher ed, Spellings recently wrote an op-ed on that topic for the Chronicle.

On the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill: Whether it stays or goes isn’t up to her or UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. State law leaves that decision up to the N.C. Historical Commission, which might do something (or not) in April. That's been her position since this fall, when she found herself in the crossfire of a majority of the Board of Governors (a group that included Harry Smith) and the governor's office.

UNC-CH faculty, meanwhile, continue to call for the removal of the Confederate statue from campus. Information and Library Science professors posted this letter Tuesday asking that the statue be moved. A group of 17 anonymous faculty members (purportedly) threatened last week to tear it down.

In other Spellings-related news, Politico reported this week that the UNC chief is pushing what she called a "third way" to help universities investigate sexual assault. The idea in a nutshell would be that universities and law enforcement would turn over these investigations to a new independent agency. It's complicated, so go read the Politico piece.

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