What’s at stake in the fight over Margaret Spellings


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

Nearly 10 years ago, the U.S. Department of Education put out a report calling for changes in the way higher education functions. That report was called “A Test of Leadership.”

Now that the prophet of for-profit is poised to take her place as the head of the nation’s oldest public university system, the phrase “a test of leadership” has an entirely new meaning.

For all people who care about keeping and nourishing the great public university system we have, the response to Spellings is a true test of leadership.

We should be proud to say that in a number of ways, Appalachian State has met that challenge. Our faculty senate passed a resolution last November raising serious questions about Spellings’ qualifications and the process by which she was chosen.

On Tuesday, a number of students are planning a walk out to signal their displeasure with Spellings’ appointment.

There is still one highly consequential group that has not made any statement. The administration has yet to speak substantively about Spellings.

Given the politics involved, it’s understandable why administrators would be reluctant to speak out or take action. Even with those realities, the voices of administrators are necessary.

Related: Chancellor, other campus leaders, react to Margaret Spelling’s appointment

Magaret Spellings represents the worse trends in higher education, trends that are coming together to destroy public higher education as we know.

Spellings comes to UNC with a clear resume. She has served on the boards of controversial for-profit colleges. The aforementioned report on higher education she oversaw dismissed the idea that we should look for increased state support as a means of making college more affordable.

Instead, the report recommended universities adopt various productivity and accountability to cut the costs. The basic idea is that universities should be treated as any other business, an idea that should be rejected by anyone who sees the value in public colleges and universities.

Of course, this type of mindset has been at work in North Carolina for sometime. Public support for colleges has dropped 25 percent since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorties. Predictably, tuition has gone up in response.

All schools in the UNC system need to stand up for this, but there should be a special pressure here at Appalachian State. Part of the reason is that, as students of this university, we should want to look back on this contentious era and be able to say that our school stood up for what was right.

Another reason is our identity as a liberal arts institution. Here, we understand that while economic considerations play a role in education, the purpose of college is much broader than simply vocational training.

In part, college is also supposed to give people the knowledge they need to critically engage and shape the type of society that we have.

It’s this vision of higher education that is especially imperiled by the type of program that Spellings represents and will likely push in office.

So the fight against the Spellings agenda is not just a matter of standing up for the people of North Carolina, but at Appalachian State it is a matter of standing up for our identity as an institution.

Related opinion: Spellings selection does not bode well for UNC’s future

When prompting administrators to stand up, we should always note that the political situation is difficult. There is a legitimate chilling effect in places that works to keep people who are in the system in line.

Still, the existence of that chilling effect makes it even more important that people with power speak up and use what power they have to promote a positive direction for the system.

Tuesday marks the beginning of a new phase in this troubling time for the UNC system. As long we stay mired in this particular mess, all high-profile figures in the UNC system should be judged on the basis of the stands they take in combating this disastrous vision of higher education.

To Chancellor Everts and other administrators, please stand up at this difficult time to show not only the state, but the nation where Appalachian State stands.

Griffin, a senior journalism major from Madison, is the Opinion Editor.