UNC Moving Forward with Collaboratory Ordered by General Assembly

It’s common for UNC to work with state and local government officials for research of different issues. But it isn’t so common for the General Assembly to direct university researchers to studying environmental policy.

The General Assembly appropriated one million dollars to the university as part of the 2016-2017 state budget to launch the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory. Its purpose is for the faculty-led research at UNC to join with practical usage by the General Assembly.

UNC Faculty Chair Bruce Cairns spoke with WCHL about the possibility of this collaboratory last week. Cairns said the faculty is ready to get the project started but not without some concern over how the center was ordered from the legislature.

“The faculty, as it always has been, is fully engaged in the creation of these kinds of entities.”

However, Cairns also says getting the process started will be a little different since research centers aren’t usually created by a spot in the state budget. He says U-N-C faculty and Provost Jim Dean are working to find out how the collaboratory will fit in the UNC structure.

“We are a public university so this becomes a transparent process. And we have a mission. And we have a set of standards that we uplift and uphold. And all of this will be our focus as we move forward with this enterprise.”

Cairns says Dean plans to keep the faculty updated with where the collaboratory is in the research processes. And he says he’s excited for it to get off the ground.
“It is a novel mechanism to try to create an entity such as this at UNC Chapel Hill.”

UNC announced it was going forward with the collaboratory and that it will be managed by the office of Brad Ives, the university’s chief sustainability officer and associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises. He’ll serve as interim director during the launch phase.

The collaboratory has the opportunity to receive an additional $3.5 million if the university can raise enough money to match the original $1 million provided by the legislature.


Denial of the Fourth Circuit Appeal to the 2013 Reform Law Causes Concern

The denial of the Fourth Circuit appeal to the 2013 Reform Law, also known as the Voter ID Bill, has created some concerns for what voters should expect at the polls in November.

The new regulations block Voter ID and reinstates preregistration, a week of early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting.

The voter ID requirements that were in effect during the precinct voting will not be in place. Former Chapel Hill Town Council member & General Assembly Legislative Staff member Gerry Cohen said the biggest impact on the voting sites will be the wait times.

“I think the major effect will be to speed up voting. I think we saw in March especially that the process caused a lot of bottle-necks dealing with ID’s. In terms of the process, not having voter ID’s will greatly speed in the voter check-in,” Cohen said.

Since these requirements have been put into place since 2013, the years of planning that the Board of Elections had done for this year’s election are having to be revised.

“2013 Bill had reduced early voting from 17 days to 10 but required the same number of hours at registration. So, the Orange County Board of Elections voted unanimously a plan which now has to be reworked,” Cohen said.

Appeals for a stay to keep the provisions in place until the end of this election continue to come in. Cohen said he’s not convinced there will be any change in the decision even in the United States Supreme Court.

The voter registration deadline is in a couple of short months and Cohen said there are many things you can do to make your voting experience easier, especially when changing your address.

“If you have registered in Orange County but moved, the easiest way to report your change your address is if you have a voter registration card from Orange County, flip it over, there is a change of address form on the back. If you have moved within Orange County and have kept up with that, if not, the second best way to report a change of address is at early voting,” Cohen said.

Voter Registration ends on October 14th.

Cohen said that even though you won’t be required an ID when going to vote, he recommends bringing one if you have it to help the election clerk find your name faster.

State Board of Elections is meeting this week with county boards to discuss new guidelines.


It’s Time for Better Leadership in North Carolina

When the General Assembly adjourned on July 1, I hoped that were done damaging the state for the year.  But, sometimes the fallout lingers long after a disaster.

Since we finished this year’s legislative session, there’s been nonstop news about the harm done to North Carolina in the last few years of Republican legislative action.

Here are but a few examples.

You likely know the NBA has pulled next year’s All Star Game from Charlotte over House Bill 2.  What you may not be hearing or what I am hearing from entrepreneurs telling me that they are having a hard time getting out-of-state investments because funders don’t believe they can recruit the best talent to North Carolina in the wake of HB2.  One company that is poised for a major hiring push right here in the Triangle told me they may have to move out of state to maintain their funding and growth.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators took $500,000 out of the states disaster relief fund to defend HB2 in court.  There is some great irony in that because HB2 is certainly a disaster.  But, what if a hurricane hits this fall or Zika spreads north?

Last week, North Carolina was one of three states to have Voter ID laws struck down by courts.  The unanimous court decision striking down North Carolina’s law called it one of the most racially biased laws since Jim Crow.  There’s some good news in this to voters in access to the ballot.  But, unfortunately tax payers now have to foot the bill for the prolonged lawsuit adding to the millions of dollars the state has already spent defending unconstitutional laws passed by this Republican legislature.

New numbers from the North Carolina Justice Center show that the Republicans’ taxation scheme is upside down.  In 2015, those people making less than $20,000 paid 9.2 percent of their income in taxes.  But, those making over $375,000 paid only 5.3 percent.  The top one percent of taxpayers have seen their taxes cut by an average of almost $15,000 while the bottom half of taxpayers have actually seen their taxes go up.  Meanwhile, corporate taxes will be cut again to 3 percent beginning in 2017 begging the question of why they should pay a fraction of what you and I pay.

Elections have consequences and laws have consequences.  Unfortunately, too many of the consequences from our legislature have been boondoggles and disasters.  We’re wasting too much taxpayer money and not doing enough to help everyday working people.

It’s time for better leadership.


— Rep. Graig Meyer


For NC AIDS Action Network, Tuesday Is “Advocacy Day”

On Tuesday, June 7, activists from around the state will head to Raleigh for “Advocacy Day,” meeting with state legislators on behalf of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.

NCAAN executive director Lee Storrow says representatives will meet with legislators partly to thank them for past support for HIV treatment and prevention programs, but also to push for more action. In particular, Storrow says they’ll be asking the General Assembly to allow needle-exchange programs, which have been shown to be effective means of preventing HIV transmission among drug users. (The HIV infection rate is growing faster in the Southeast than any other region in the US, making prevention a critical issue.)

Lee Storrow spoke Monday with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


For more on NCAAN’s Advocacy Day – including information on how you can get involved – visit this page.


General Assembly Addresses Legislation Important for UNC System

The General Assembly has recently addressed two pieces of legislation that will be of great consequence for the UNC system. These policies, which are ultimately written by politicians, will have to be put into effect by the UNC administration, like Senate Bill 873 and NCGAP.

Senate Bill 873, sought to set tuition at 5 UNC system schools at $500 dollars a semester, as well reduce student fees and set limits on increases.

But according to the bill’s sponsor Senator Tom Apodaca, Fayetteville State, Elizabeth City State and Winston Salem State, all HBCUs, will be dropped from a bill due to backlash.

Western Carolina and UNC Pembroke will still be included.

Students and teachers from HBCU’s rallied in Raleigh against the bill Wednesday. Critics say it will create a deficit for the schools and diminish the value of their education.

The 60-80 million dollar loss in tuition revenue would be covered by the state’s general fund, at least this year.

The bill has been included in the Senate’s budget proposal, so Apodaca will have to introduce a budget amendment to remove those three schools from the bill.

Speaking at a press conference last Thursday, UNC President Margaret Spellings said they were working with the general assembly on Senate Bill 873.

Spellings said the actual value of those degrees won’t change, just the cost students will pay. She admitted they will still have to explain that to prospective students.

“What the sticker price is and what the amount the student actually pays I think are always different. That’s why explaining, marketing, conveying how this will work will be a big part of it,” said Spellings.

Lou Bissette, chairman of the Board of Governors said the bill was a step in the right direction.

“It’s really refreshing to see the legislature coming forward with some ideas and some funding, I mean this is going to cost them a lot of money so I’m extremely pleased they’re thinking about affordability and they are prepared to put the money where their mouth is,” said Bissette. “We are actively working together so we can all support this bill in the end.”

And as far as the Board of Governors input on SB 873, Spellings was sure their interests would be heard.

“We will have our input before this piece of legislation is enacted, that is the main thing,” said Spellings.

NCGAP is another piece of legislation that will have a big effect on enrollment in the UNC system. The program is designed to send more students to community college by either increasing acceptance standards or decreasing enrollment of freshman. The General Assembly recently approved delaying the program, after the Board of Governors requested it not start until 2018.

Spellings said had been asked by the General Assembly to bring them a plan addressing changes to the program.

“They’re asking us, the Board of Governors and me to develop a plan to address those issues between now and the 2017 legislative session. They’ve rightly identified a problem a problem of affordability and access,” said Spellings.

Opponents of NCGAP said it will mostly affect lower achieving schools in the UNC system.

The Board of Governors was mostly appointed by the Republican majority legislature.


Renaming Provision Removed From Senate Bill 873

A controversial section of a proposal from the North Carolina Senate allowing the UNC System Board of Governors to consider changing the names of state schools based on their effect on “enrollment, academic strength and diversity” has been removed.

The Senate Higher Education Committee discussed Senate Bill 873 Wednesday, also known as the Access to Affordable College Education Act.

The bill plans to cap tuition at five North Carolina universities at $500 per semester for in-state students. The bill also sets a cap on student fees and limits increases to three percent per year.

The five schools impacted are Fayetteville State, Winston Salem State, Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina.

Republican Senator Jerry Tillman, who represents Moore and Randolph counties, said the bill will improve access for many North Carolinians.

“It’s the right direction for families who are struggling to educate their kids and it will help them from graduating with a huge debt,” said Tillman.

But critics say it is an attempt to defund HBCUs.

Republican Senator Tom Apodaca who represents Buncombe County, is the bill’s primary sponsor. He is a graduate of Western Carolina.

In addition to creating a cap on tuition and fees, the bill also establishes scholarships for North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T, the state’s largest HBCUs.

Apodaca said the scholarships would help attract “the best and brightest” to these schools.

Some questioned how they would attract the best and the brightest to the five universities impacted by the bill.

Senator Apodaca said the free market forces would help.

“My belief is when you set price it will incentivize additional customers, for lack of a better term, to come to your institution,” said Apodaca. “So with more enrollment and more students I think you will naturally see a progression of everything else rising with it, as they say a rising tide lifts all ships.”

Senator Jane Smith represents Robeson County, where UNC Pembroke is located. She said enrollment hasn’t been a problem for that university.

“With the idea of increasing enrollment, they are at record enrollments right now,” said Smith. “Their enrollment has increased, I know, for the last three years, they expect record enrollment again next fall.”

But at other schools enrollment is a concern. It’s down almost 50 percent at Elizabeth City State since 2010.

Lower tuition also means less funding for these schools. Senator Apodaca, said the difference, an estimated $60 to $80 million, would be covered by the state’s general fund.

But Senator Gladys Robinson was concerned about providing that funding in the future. It would essentially be up to future General Assembly’s to provide that funding from the general fund.

The bill was also amended to require schools to cut student fees by five percent, opposed to the originally proposed 10%.


A Tale Of Two Moderates: McCrory, Spellings, And HB2

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Every time there’s a contentious political issue, we tend to demonize our opponents – and we also tend to lump them together.

House Bill 2, for instance. They say we’re fomenting radical upheaval! We say they’re all ignorant bigots! And sadly, in all the shouting we lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of distinctions among the two sides as well.

Take HB2’s supporters. True, there are bigots, who only support HB2 because it makes life harder for LGBT people – but the bigots are not to be confused with good people who are still learning. Or those who genuinely worry about non-transgender men abusing a trans-friendly policy. Or those who say gender distinctions help protect privacy in bathrooms and changing rooms. Or libertarians, who at least support letting private businesses set their own policies. Or conservatives in the literal sense, who just aren’t thrilled about having to rethink everything that assumes a strict male/female divide – even if they concede that the assumption is wrong.

All those subtle distinctions are important.

But it’s not just why people support HB2 that matters – there’s also the question of degree.

On the one hand, sure, you have your die-hards: people who love House Bill 2, show up at all the rallies, believe it’s the only thing standing between us and total upheaval.

But then there are the moderates, and there’s a lot more of them than you think. The moderates aren’t happy with HB2. They think it’s poorly written. They think it’s way too broad. They’re embarrassed by the bigots. They know the “public safety” concerns are overblown. They hate what it’s done to our state’s reputation. They hate what it’s doing to our economy. And they think there are more important issues we ought to be addressing. Maybe they still support parts of the bill, maybe they think it’s better than nothing, maybe they’re worried about party unity, maybe they just don’t want to make waves – but they’re clearly not comfortable with it. And as the two sides get more entrenched (and more extreme), the moderates are caught in the middle.

So if you’re a moderate, and you get pressed to take a stance on HB2, you have a hard choice:

What do you do?

And that’s a huge question. How you act is even more important than how you think. Two moderates could share the exact same opinion about HB2 – but if they act in different ways, they’ll end up in very, very, very different places.

Case in point, submitted for your approval:

Margaret Spellings and Pat McCrory.

Both of them Republicans, both very public figures, both holding major positions of power in state government – and both of them highly ambivalent about House Bill 2.

McCrory, ambivalent? Actually yes, and no doubt about it. Pat McCrory refused to call the GA into special session precisely because he was afraid they’d do something nuts. In his signing statement, he couldn’t even get through two paragraphs before hinting the GA went too far. Even now, he rarely attempts to defend Parts 2 and 3 of the bill, the non-bathroom stuff; when asked about them, he steers the conversation back to Part 1. His April 12 executive order begged the GA to walk back Part 3 – and made it clear that his office would have no part of workplace discrimination against LGBT people, even if HB2 made it legal. And at no point has McCrory ever bought into the “public safety” craze: he’s consistently been a “privacy” guy, and he’s repeatedly rejected the notion that there’s any danger of people being assaulted in bathrooms. Pat McCrory supports Part 1 of HB2, he thinks Charlotte’s ordinance went too far, he’s willing to swallow Parts 2 and 3 to get the provision he wants – and he’s fully aware the NCGA would have just overridden him if he’d taken a stand and tried to veto. But he’s never been happy with HB2, not for a second.

And in that, Pat McCrory is not far off from Margaret Spellings. Spellings has never been comfortable with LGBT issues, she has a history of saying the wrong thing, and in the case of HB2 she’s clearly not interested in picking a public fight with the General Assembly. Nor should we expect her to be. She’s a very prominent Republican in North Carolina, so it would be front-page news if she did pick a fight; she needs to maintain friendly relations with the NCGA because they pay UNC’s bills; and she doesn’t believe she has the authority to defy a government directive in the first place. So it’s no surprise she hasn’t exactly been getting herself arrested at Moral Mondays. But we also know that she’s not a fan of HB2. She said so herself, and unlike McCrory she went after the “bathroom” stuff directly:

“Were it up to me, I would not recommend enactment…I think it sends a chill through these institutions for staff, faculty and student recruitment…We don’t intend to enforce anything.”

When HB2 passed, Pat McCrory and Margaret Spellings found themselves in the same boat. They both had qualms about the bill. They both believed it went too far. But they’re also ambivalent on LGBT matters, this issue was never their top priority, and they both have strong incentives to avoid challenging the all-powerful NCGA. They had their differences – McCrory supported the “bathroom” stuff in Part 1, Spellings apparently opposed it – but for all practical purposes, Pat McCrory and Margaret Spellings were caught in exactly the same position: moderates, forced to take a public stand on a volatile issue.

What do you do?

Pat McCrory didn’t have to make the choices he made. He could have vetoed the bill, forced an override, dumped it all on the NCGA. He could have quietly signed the bill and said no more about it. He could have issued a signing statement calling for amendments, or at least more dialogue. He didn’t have to issue statement after statement defending HB2. When the boycotts came, he could have simply called for cooler heads to prevail. When the lawsuits came, he didn’t have to say anything at all.

Margaret Spellings didn’t have to make the choices she made. The night HB2 passed, she could have issued a statement thanking the NCGA for establishing a clear statewide policy. She could have said UNC cared about “protecting students’ safety” or “protecting students’ privacy.” When the Obama administration stepped in, it could just as easily have been Spellings on TV denouncing “federal overreach.” It could just as easily have been UNC suing the Justice Department – Margaret Spellings leading the charge.

Any of those choices would have made perfect sense.

It could have been so different.

But those weren’t the choices they made. Pat McCrory could have quietly backed away, but instead he took it upon himself to be HB2’s public face. Margaret Spellings could have put on a smile and gotten on board, but instead she went out of her way to be as reluctant as possible. Pat McCrory accused HB2’s opponents of being uninformed and hypocritical; Margaret Spellings told reporters UNC is a “welcoming and safe space for all.” Pat McCrory sued the U.S. government; Margaret Spellings implied the U.S. government was probably right.

True, Spellings has still taken some heat for not opposing HB2 more strongly.

But let’s just say there are no delis in Charlotte currently serving a sandwich called “Burn In Hell Margaret Spellings.” Pat McCrory, not so much.

So whenever we find ourselves arguing about HB2, let’s pause for a second and take a moment for the moderates – forced to choose between cruddy options, on an issue they wanted no part of. Be frustrated with Spellings’ tepid reaction, but recognize how much she has been pushing back. Criticize McCrory, but remember he wasn’t the architect of HB2 – he’s just a guy who got a bad situation dumped in his lap and made one fateful choice that’s been snowballing ever since.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” McCrory and Spellings started in the same place – but Pat McCrory is the face of House Bill 2, and Margaret Spellings is not. It could have been so different, so easily.

Remember the moderates. It’s hard out there these days.


Donald Trump, HB2, And The Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations

I want to talk about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

We’ve heard that phrase, right? Michael Gerson is the one who coined it, back in 2000 when he was a speechwriter for George W. Bush. Back then, it was an argument about race and education: we’re hurting African-American students by failing to hold them to a high standard, rewarding them for doing the bare minimum. Low expectations means students have no incentive to strive or work hard or be ambitious – so the achievement gap will never close, families will be stuck in poverty, and it’ll be on us for not having been more demanding.

That was the original argument, and it resonated well – especially with Republicans, who pride themselves on being the party of personal responsibility.

But here’s the thing, y’all:

Today, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is still with us – only it’s not against African-Americans.

It’s against Republicans.

Today, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan met to work out an “agreement” to re-unify the GOP. Now, Donald Trump is a pathological liar, he says he wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country, he’s stirred up hatred of immigrants, he’s threatened to prosecute journalists who criticize him, and he’s actively encouraged his followers to beat up anyone who disagrees. Any one of those things ought to be enough to disqualify him from being president – if we hold our candidates up to high standards. Instead, GOP leaders are willing to let all that slide. Ryan will settle for some tiny concession, they’ll come out saying they’ve had great talks and reached an understanding, and they’ll shake hands and smile and move on. (Even as I’m writing this, Ryan and Trump just released a statement to exactly that effect.)

Meanwhile, Trump is creating a new controversy by refusing to release his tax returns. “There’s nothing to learn from them,” he says. Trump’s opponents say he’s lying about his finances, he’s not really worth ten billion dollars, he’s involved in shady dealings. But there’s no proof without the tax returns, so Trump says it must be a non-issue.

That’s how low the bar is for Donald Trump. We can’t prove he’s committed dozens of felonies; therefore he’s qualified to lead the free world. He has no respect for the Constitution, but that’s okay because he gives the GOP a slightly better chance of winning in November.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.

And it’s not just Trump. In North Carolina, we’re all about to go to court over the “bathroom” section of House Bill 2. What, exactly, are Republicans arguing? They’re arguing that federal law bans discrimination on the basis of sex, but it doesn’t overtly ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity, so a law that discriminates on that basis is technically acceptable.

Mind you, this is not the GOP’s fallback position – this is their position. Pat McCrory is making this argument loudly and proudly. “House Bill 2 is technically not directly against the law, so therefore it must be okay.” Forget whether it actually protects public safety. (McCrory hasn’t even tried to make that argument for weeks, in case you haven’t noticed.) As long as it manages to skate riiight up to the line of breaking federal law without actually technically crossing it, House Bill 2 must be perfectly fine.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.

And it’s not even just House Bill 2. This year alone, we’ve had legal fights over Congressional district lines, state legislative district lines, voter ID, teacher tenure, and judicial elections. Sooner or later, “magistrate recusal” is heading to the courts as well. And in every single one of those cases, it’s the same argument from the GOP: “Well, technically it’s not quite a violation of federal law, so therefore it must be okay.”

You know what? That’s not good enough.

It’s time we raised the bar.

Rather than letting the NCGA get away with passing bill after bill that’s arguably just slightly not quite unconstitutional, let’s demand our lawmakers pass bills that don’t create a legal crisis at all.

Rather than having to go to court and nitpick over whether our district lines constitute racial gerrymandering or just partisan gerrymandering, let’s just draw our district lines without any gerrymandering whatsoever.

Rather than making Pat McCrory go on TV and argue that “gender” discrimination technically isn’t the same thing as “sex” discrimination, let’s just have a law that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender or sex.

Rather than making teachers sue the state to secure their contractually guaranteed benefits, let’s just fulfill the frigging contract.

Rather than jumping through legal hoops to argue that we’re not technically violating the Voting Rights Act when we impose new voting restrictions, let’s just…not impose new voting restrictions.

And rather than selling your soul and supporting a presidential candidate who stirs up hatred, panders to racists, trashes the Constitution, and generally acts like an eight-year-old playground bully, let’s actually demand our candidates meet a higher standard than the lowest possible bar. Ditch Trump if you need to. Vote for Gary Johnson instead. Democrats, if your candidate doesn’t hold up to high standards either, same story. Vote Johnson. Vote Stein. Write in somebody good.

Our political leaders ought to be better than this. Our candidates ought to be better than this. We ought to be better than this.

Otherwise, we’re subjecting ourselves, our state, and our country to the soft bigotry of low expectations. And we’re going to hate ourselves for it.

To hell with that. There’s too much hate already.


Postscript: Michael Gerson, the speechwriter who originally coined the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations,” is now a writer for the Washington Post – and he’s remained consistent. He’s been a vocal opponent of Donald Trump’s for a long time now, most recently in this column.


OC Rep. Introduces Bill to Help Teachers Pay Loans

State lawmakers have introduced a bill to help teachers pay off their student loans.

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange, Durham), along with some of his democratic colleagues, introduced House Bill 1031 – the North Carolina Teacher Help Fund.

The fund will give up 38.5 million of education lottery funds to public school teachers to help pay off their student loans.

Meyer, himself a former public school employee, said they would use funds from a major Powerball drawing in January.

“We’d like the windfall from the lottery profits to be a jackpot for North Carolina teachers,” said Meyer.

He said they would need a consistent revenue stream, however, for the fund in the future.

According to Meyer, up to 3,800 teachers would be eligible for the loan forgiveness and they could each receive up to $10,000.

Both public and charter school teachers would be eligible.

Rep. Ed Hanes (D-Forsyth) said this bill was something everyone could stand behind.

“Why can’t we use these funds to help ease the burden on these public servants? Why can’t we use it as an opportunity to unite our state behind what is good, what is right? And that is supporting our teachers,” said Hanes.

In exchange for the funds, teachers would have to commit to at least four more years in the classroom.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson, (D- Franklin) thinks that commitment to teachers could be a boost for North Carolina’s economy.

“I believe that showing unwavering support and respect for our teachers would put North Carolina on the map for economic development,” said Richardson.

North Carolina has ranked towards to bottom in teacher pay in the last several years. But according to the National Education Association, the state is expected to rise in the rankings after a 7% teacher pay increase went into effect last year.

Meyer said more still needs to be done to attract and keep teachers in the state.

“This type of loan forgiveness is targeted directly at the young teachers who are most likely to leave our profession because of North Carolina’s lagging pay,” said Meyer.

Meyer said this bill is in line with the original purpose of the lottery; to supplement education spending, not to act as a revenue stream for essential items.

Meyer said that Gov. McCrory’s budget proposes using the same funds to purchase text books and technology for classrooms, which he said usually comes out of the general fund.


President Spellings: What Should Her Agenda Be For UNC?

2016 has been a tumultuous year for UNC – with protests still ongoing against new system president Margaret Spellings, even before she’s had a chance to get into the job.

Will she be able to do her job, with those demonstrations continuing? What do university leaders see as being her agenda as system president? And what do they think she can – and should – try to accomplish?

“I think she’s absolutely going to be able to do her job,” said UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair Bruce Cairns at last week’s WCHL Community Forum.

Cairns added that he doesn’t expect Spellings to pursue an agenda much removed from what we’ve seen before. “When you listen to President Spellings talk about what she would like to see happen,” he said, “I think it’s really about allowing us to continue to be a great public university system.”

But what agenda should Margaret Spellings be pursuing as system president? What should she be trying to do?

UNC senior Hayley Fowler is a reporter for the Daily Tar Heel who’s been following the controversy from the beginning; she says Spellings needs to assure students that they do have a voice in how the university is run.

“I think for students, it’s becoming increasingly important that she continue to build their trust and reach out to them personally,” she says. “The students that have been protesting don’t feel that they have a voice and they haven’t had access to the Board of Governors or Margaret Spellings herself…

“I think they’re working on opening that line of communication and dialogue, and that’s something that should be a priority moving forward, if they want to engage students in the conversation.”

But it’s not just students who want to build stronger relationships. Durham Tech president Bill Ingram says there’s also an expectation that Spellings should be working to build closer ties between the UNC system and North Carolina’s community colleges.

“She’s not the only new higher-education leader in North Carolina – Jimmie Williamson will be the new community college system president on July 1,” Ingram says. “Her ability to work with Dr. Williamson and others, and for her to encourage relationships between the (UNC) campuses and the community colleges, will be essential to her success.”

Even if Spellings is able to forge those relationships, it’s not likely the protests and demonstrations will be going away anytime soon. Many in the UNC system say they see Spellings’ appointment as political – Republicans on the Board of Governors selecting one of their own – and that concern is never going to go away, regardless of what Spellings does or doesn’t do on the job.

But is a political appointment necessarily a bad thing? John Locke Foundation communications director Mitch Kokai says there may be a benefit to having a Republican as UNC system president, even if the university’s agenda doesn’t change.

“Margaret Spellings comes in as someone that the Republicans who run the General Assembly will listen to,” he says. “I think a lot of folks (in the NCGA) saw Tom Ross as part of the Democratic establishment…(and) there was always a level of distrust that they won’t have with Margaret Spellings…

“And so I think she may come in, not even have any major, drastic differences in what she wants to see for the UNC system – but you’ll see doors be opened more often, just because of her pedigree.”

Kokai, Ingram, Fowler and Cairns made those comments during the “Higher Education” panel of the WCHL Community Forum. Revisit the entire forum here.