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UNC President to resign: Spellings will leave office in midst of WCU chancellor search

UNC President Margaret Spellings speaks to Western Carolina students and leaders Oct. 24 about the success of the N.C. Promise tuition reduction program. Holly Kays photo UNC President Margaret Spellings speaks to Western Carolina students and leaders Oct. 24 about the success of the N.C. Promise tuition reduction program. Holly Kays photo

When UNC System President Margaret Spellings visited Cullowhee Wednesday, Oct. 24, the prevailing mood was celebratory and lighthearted as she lauded the success of the new tuition reduction program at Western Carolina University and congratulated student speakers on their accomplishments. But, within 48 hours of her return to Raleigh, Spellings would announce her resignation from the position she’d held for less than three years. 

“I came into this position intent on creating a culture of higher expectations, and that shift is underway,” Spellings said during a press conference following the announcement. “But times change and those changes demand new leaders and new approaches. I will leave proud of the contributions made during my tenure and forever honored to have served.”

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith announced Spellings’ resignation following a two-hour closed session in an emergency meeting the board held on Friday, Oct. 26. She will continue to work through March 1 with salary and benefits, including the regular executive retirement contribution of $77,500. Spellings will receive relocation expenses of $35,000 and a separation payment of $500,000, which reflects “acceleration of research leave provided for in the existing employment contract and projected performance bonus,” according to a document outlining the terms. 

Spellings will leave after having completed only three years of a five-year contract that was set to expire at the end of February 2021. 

SEE ALSO: N.C. Promise success celebrated at WCU


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‘This is my instigation’ 

In the press conference, Spellings said the decision to resign was her own. 

“I went to Harry (Smith) a few weeks ago, and we started having this conversation,” said Spellings. “This is my instigation and I so appreciate the support the board is showing for me and this timing. I hope I’ve left the place better than I found it.”

In his remarks at the press conference, Smith was complimentary of Spellings and her contributions over the past three years. 

“Having been able to sit beside Margaret (Spellings) for quite a while now and enjoyed every minute of it — it’s a big job. I’m telling you for those who don’t know it, it’s a big job … It’s a lot. I can’t say enough great things about how she shouldered it,” Smith said. “She’s done it with grace and dignity.”

Smith said that he could attest that “without the shadow of a doubt,” “the state is far better off because of our time with Margaret Spellings.”

When pressed by reporters as to the reason for her resignation, Spellings would only say that “it was just the right time.” 

“These are personal decisions,” she said. “These are tough jobs, demanding jobs. Three years is a good run. I’m proud of the accomplishments that have occurred in that period of time. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together, and it’s just the right time for me.”

Spellings said that she’s not sure what she’ll be doing next but that she expects to continue her career in public service and the next chapter will probably occur in Texas, where she is from. 

Spellings’ departure is not likely due to pay. When she was hired in 2015 the board gave her a base salary of $775,000 — significantly more than the $600,000 salary afforded outgoing President Tom Ross — and Spellings earned performance bonuses of $90,000 and $95,000, respectively, in 2017 and 2018. 

However, her relationship with the board has not always been as rosy as Smith implied during the press conference. The Board of Governors has almost completely turned over since Spellings’ hire, and she and the governing body have had their share of disagreements. 


Impact to WCU chancellor search 

Among those disagreements was Spellings’ pick for the chancellorship at Western Carolina University. According to the process laid out when former Chancellor David O. Belcher left after an ongoing battle with brain cancer, a 21-member committee went through a painstaking process to select three candidates for the position, which it sent to the WCU Board of Trustees for approval. Trustees then forwarded the list to Spellings, who was to select a candidate to be hired following approval by the Board of Governors. 

But the Board of Governors never voted on the name Spellings sent forward. A two-hour closed session on the issue July 12 ended without a vote either way, and afterward the candidate withdrew from consideration. 

“I think these are all personal decisions. You’d have to ask him, but as people think about moving across the country for roles they think, ‘Is this the right fit or not?’” Spellings said during an interview with The Smoky Mountain News on Oct. 24. “Opportunities that they’re leaving behind or expanding and those sorts of things. Every individual story is different. I wouldn’t want to breach any confidentiality of that individual’s circumstance.”

When the candidate withdrew, the search process rebooted. The search committee reformed, putting out a second call for candidates. Spellings did not put forth one of the other two candidates vetted by the university for approval from the Board of Governors. 

“The circumstances were such that we didn’t have a match that was to the good of the university, so we went back to the drawing board and that’s where we are now ... We’re always looking for the best fit and the best candidate, not the fastest candidate,” Spellings said in the Oct. 24 interview. 

Spellings said that the second search process was proceeding as planned and that WCU should have a new leader in place to begin the next academic year. However, she made that statement before her Friday resignation announcement. 

The 20-member search committee met Oct. 22 to discuss the search process, making some slight changes to the document that serves as a job description to reflect changes in student enrollment, student/faculty ratio and other metrics that have shifted since the document was first drafted in March. 


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UNC President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith preside over a press conference Oct. 26 following announcement that Spellings will resign. UNCTV image


The committee also nailed down key points in the search timeline, setting a deadline of Jan. 4 for applications and nominations. Off-campus interviews with the first cut of candidates will occur in late January and early February, with finalists participating in on-campus interviews in mid-February. The committee will present three finalists for the Board of Trustees to approve in early March, sending those names on to the UNC President to make the final pick, with Board of Governors approval. 

All that means WCU is scheduled to send its finalists for the chancellor’s job to Raleigh within days of Spellings’ last day as president. The Board of Governors intends to appoint an interim president to serve in the position as it hires a new leader — through a yet-to-be-disclosed process — and the interim’s name has not yet been announced. 

According to WCU’s chief communications officer Bill Studenc, Spellings’ resignation will not affect the search timeline. However, it’s unlikely that Spellings will be the one to select the final candidate. Whoever is in the president’s office at that time will make the selection, whether that be an interim or a permanent hire, Studenc said. 

As everyone involved with the process acknowledges, making the right hire will be essential to the future of WCU. Belcher, a universally beloved and charismatic leader who brought WCU forward in leaps and bounds during his six years at the helm, will be a hard act to follow, and the search committee has taken its job seriously. Even after what must have been a demoralizing outcome following the hours and months spent vetting and recommending candidates in the first round of the search, all but one member of the 21-member committee agreed to serve again. The person who declined to do so was a student who had since graduated. 

“I appreciate their commitment of time, because they know there’s almost nothing more important than getting the right leader,” Spellings said Oct. 24. 

The search committee has expressed its intention to consider traditional and nontraditional candidates alike in its quest for the best chancellor, during the Oct. 22 meeting encouraging internal candidates at WCU and UNC system schools to apply, as well as leaders in business and industry fields.

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