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.

Community Leaders Talk Inclusion

Aaron Keck along with a panel of local community leaders considered ways to make our community a more inclusive place on Tuesday at the WCHL Community Forum.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the town was good at talking about diversity but we needed to back up those words with action.

“We are giving a lot of, and have always given great lip service, we know the rights words to speak in these situations,” said Kleinschmidt.

Damon Seils, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, said that his town is considering measuring the race and equity impact of their policy decisions, similar to calculating economic impact.

Braxton Foushee, a longtime community activist, questioned if racial bias plays a part in allowing students to celebrate on Franklin Street after big UNC athletic wins. Illegal bonfires are usually started at these events. He supposed that if those fires were started by African American kids from the community, opposed to white students from the university, they would receive a harsher reaction from police.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue thought that wouldn’t be the case.

“I really would like to think that’s not true. And I know there is a lot of history and experience behind that question,” said Blue.

When studies emerged showing racial disparities in traffic stops, Blue said many police officers didn’t want to believe it was true. And even though his department is making a dedicated effort to improve the situation, it remains a reality that is difficult to change.

“I’m really encouraged about the dialogue but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Blue. “If you look at the data now compared to four years ago, you probably don’t see a dramatic improvement and that remains very frustrating for me and my colleagues because we think we are having very enlightening conversations but the outcomes are still pretty troubling.”

Foushee said there are many areas where we can improve race relations but first we must make sure all kinds of people have a seat at the table.

“We have to know each other’s communities,” said Foushee.

WCHL Community Forum on Tuesday

The 2016 WCHL Community Forum is slated to begin at eight o’clock on Tuesday morning to kick off a 10-hour live broadcast of panels discussing issues impacting our community.

The marathon will begin with the Town & Gown panel with UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, and chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners Earl McKee. The panel will discuss major issues that intersect the university and different municipalities operating within Orange County.

Throughout the day we will discuss issues including K-12 and Higher Education, Transit, Development and what can be done to make Chapel Hill more attractive for young professionals.

You can listen in for panel discussions through six o’clock Tuesday evening and submit questions live during the forum with #WCHLFoum on twitter

WCHL Community Forum Held on Thursday

The 2015 WCHL Community Forum was on Thursday. It was a day-long conversation with newsmakers from across the community on the issues that matter to you.

You can listen to all of the discussions from the forum here.

The Town & Gown panel started the day with government and university leaders discussing issues of shared concern, including the Northside Neighborhood Initiative, transportation sustainability and expansion, and the impact of paying a living wage to workers in our community.

UNC Under Fire examined the tough questions facing UNC, including what the university is doing to be more transparent in the wake of the academic scandal, how it’s dealing with scrutiny from the Board of Governors, and how to handle cuts to financial aid and other programs.

One hour was devoted to discussion of Safety & Tolerance. Orange County promotes itself as an inclusive place for any and all beliefs and lifestyles, but are we living up to that ideal? What can we do to make everyone feel welcome- and safe- in our community?

Affordable Housing is a hot topic in Orange County. Community leaders came together to discuss what’s being done to ensure Orange County stays affordable and what creative ideas are out there to provide alternatives to standard housing.

Leaders discussed Poverty, Hunger, and Wages. Who’s struggling to get by in what appears to be a well-to-do community? What can we do to help?

Planning for the future requires collaboration on growth, infrastructure, schools, transit and more. How will we pay for our community’s needs and wants next year and in the years ahead? A panel of residents and government officials discussed spending priorities.

UNC Athletics has been under an intense microscope as a seemingly endless string of allegations and lawsuits continue to come forward. A conversation on UNC and the state of college athletics was held to discuss what issues face Carolina and college athletics in general as schools attempts to hang on to the ever-changing definition of a student-athlete.

Growth and development are changing the faces of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Leaders from Chapel Hill and Carrboro gathered to tackle questions of what kind of growth each town wants and needs.

The day finished up with a discussion on the state of K-12 education. From the Common Core controversy to the growth in charter schools to the debate over teacher pay, the public school system is undergoing a transformation.

New And Young Leaders Learning To “Disagree Well”

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County has seen a great deal of recent political turnover, with a newer, younger generation of legislators and community leaders emerging to replace the old.

But how do those new leaders navigate the political realm? How do they make a difference, in institutions still dominated by older legislators and older ways?

“I walk in, first of all, as a student – a student of the game,” says newly appointed State House Representative Graig Meyer. “How am I going to play this game? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to align myself with? Who do I need to emulate? Who do I need to stay away from?”

First-term Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils agrees, adding that finding one’s place involves not only the need to learn how to play the game – but also the chance to elevate the discourse.

“One of the things that I found myself doing – while not intending, necessarily, to do it – was to come to the role with a kind of posture of wanting to demonstrate how to disagree well,” he says. “I think that, in itself, has value.”

Other young or first-term legislators agree that ‘being the new guy’ also offers a rare opportunity to shake things up.

“I think all of us who are new elected officials have one opportunity, which is to really see how things have been done and to ask questions about why,” says first-term County Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Why do you do something like this? Why is it like this? And maybe that’s the right way to do it, but you have the opportunity to say, ‘Explain it to me – and in doing so, explain it to the constituents.'”

Fellow first-termer Renee Price agrees. “If I have to say something that’s going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, I’m sorry,” she says. “Well, no, I’m not sorry, really.”

And first-term Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer says she can also take advantage of her status as a demographic outsider as well.

“I’m an immigrant,” she says, “so sometimes I can say things that other people are too embarrassed or have been told all their lives you can’t say in polite company.”

Palmer, Price, Dorosin and Seils all occupy seats on elected boards that serve Orange County alone – so all four can say their own values adhere fairly closely to those of their fellow board members.

Not so Meyer, a Democrat in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. “I just drove back from Raleigh,” he says, “and I was in an education policy hearing…(and) most of the people in the General Assembly don’t know a darn thing about education. And I cannot believe they’re making some of the decisions that they’re making.”

Among other things, he says, those decisions include a continued reluctance to raise teacher pay – and, on Thursday, a task force recommendation to eliminate the Common Core standards.

Those moves and others have left him frustrated, Meyer says – and it can be no less frustrating for new and young officials seeking to make change in Chapel Hill. But despite the frustration, Meyer says it’s possible to be hopeful for the future, simply by looking back to the recent past.

“On the days that I’m mad and angry – and today sitting in chambers was one of the worst days that I’ve had – I tend to think about Terry Sanford and Bill Friday,” he says. “Those gentlemen came out of World War II together…and they decided that they were going to fight racial segregation and build the prosperity of this state based on having a strong public education system.

“And there is no reason why today’s leaders shouldn’t be able to come together around the same goal of building our long-term prosperity on a well-educated populace and the ability to stand up against the continued existence of institutionalized racism and other forms of inequity.”

And it’s that hope that sustains local leaders – young and old and newcomer and veteran alike – as they continue to push for change.

“Change is hard,” says Dorosin. “It’s very frustrating. But, you know, every day you start to push the rock up the hill – and you hope that today, it gets all the way to the top.”

And in the end, Renee Price says, that activism pays off in its impact on people.

“There’s something very interesting that happens, I think every single time I’ve had a meeting (where) I’ve been frustrated,” she says. “The next day someone will call me up, or they’ll see me in the grocery store, and they’ll just say ‘thank you.’

“And you know…it makes it worth it.”

Dorosin, Price, Meyer, Seils and Palmer made those comments in the “Tomorrow’s Newsmakers” panel of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum.

Costs Up, Partnerships Down, But “People Want To Live Here”

Affordability, taxes, housing, solid waste, economic development, and the future of Carolina North and Rogers Road: all longstanding hot-button issues in Orange County, and all requiring strong partnerships between the local municipalities as well as UNC.

Orange County leaders say the time is now to make those partnerships stronger.

“One of our major issues is to renew the strength and vitality of our partnerships with the municipalities,” says Barry Jacobs, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “I think we’ve lost touch to some degree.”

At the center of the conversation is the eternal question of affordability: how to manage the cost of living while preserving a desirable community, in a space with little room to grow.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says that’s often an issue in college towns – and it’s certainly the case in Chapel Hill.

“University towns are very, very highly sought after,” she says. “I try every day to recruit faculty and staff and students…of course they’re concerned about price of living, (but) mostly we hear that people want to live here. So I think we are still on the positive side of this equation: this is a very high-choice place.”

But with that desirability comes a number of challenges – including, perhaps most notably, the cost of housing. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says those costs are worth it: “I sometimes look around (my house) and think, wow, for this price I could be in a much bigger place in Durham,” he says, “but I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.”

And while higher property values still mean Chapel Hillians are paying more dollars in taxes, Kleinschmidt notes that Chapel Hill’s property tax rate is actually lower than many of our neighboring communities.

Still, the cost of housing is a strain, one that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to live in Chapel Hill. And not only Chapel Hill: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the affordability question is affecting his community as well.

“We’re seeing rising costs (too),” he says. “It’s a little bit less expensive to live here, so we’re finding families move out (of Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and folks wanting to be in Hillsborough – (but) as prices go up, we’re finding a lot of our families are moving to Mebane.”

The housing crunch has driven local leaders to explore creative policies for developing more affordable housing in all of Orange County’s municipalities.

But as Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle points out, housing is not the only factor driving the cost of living.

“We’ve studied extensively the interplay between transportation costs and affordable housing,” she says. “A typical income earner spends anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their income on transportation – owning a car, taxes, insurance, and so forth.”

That, she says, gives local leaders a strong incentive to develop housing downtown – so residents don’t need vehicles to get to and from work. Kleinschmidt adds that he’s equally proud of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, which also keeps the cost of living down.

Taxes too are a primary concern – and local leaders are quick to point out that they’ve managed to maintain services while avoiding tax increases, even through the long recession. (Lavelle says she expects Carrboro to maintain that streak this year too.) But Barry Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to preserve the services that make Orange County a desirable place to live.

And the most important of those services, he says, is education.

“We’re proud of public education (and) we’re going to fund it to the best of our ability,” he says. “Going through the recession, and then having a state legislature that’s attacking public education, we have actually raised the per-pupil funding…and in the last 20 years we’ve built 14 schools in this county. And three of them were high schools. Those are expensive suckers…

“And that’s part of what makes this an attractive community. That’s what draws people here. It’s a double-edged sword, to use a cliché.”

But Jacobs adds that the need for education spending must be weighed against the concern for affordability – particularly the fact that many Orange County residents are seniors on fixed incomes.

And so the question returns to partnerships: town, county, and UNC officials working together to promote efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve the standard of living. Local leaders agree that’s already happening (if slowly) on the issue of Rogers Road remediation, and Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt says he’s confident it will also happen on the issue of solid waste: “I think we’re going to come together with a solution,” he says, “(and in) four, five, six years, we’re going to have a site for a transfer station that we’re all going to use.” (Kleinschmidt says there are several attractive candidates for that site in the northern part of Chapel Hill, including one off Millhouse Road.)

It’s also happening on the question of economic development, where UNC is actively partnering with the towns and county on projects ranging from the LAUNCH entrepreneurial incubator to the redevelopment of 123 West Franklin, the former University Square – though Chancellor Folt says little is happening right now when it comes to Carolina North. (“We’re really not having any active plans there right now,” she says. “It’s really not at the top of the list.”)

In the end, though, while local leaders seem to agree that municipal partnerships have been stronger, there’s also a shared commitment to strengthening them in the months and years to come.

“How we should go forward is together,” says Jacobs.

Folt, Jacobs, Kleinschmidt, Lavelle, and Stevens made those comments during the “Town and Gown” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum; they were joined on the panel by outgoing UNC student body president Christy Lambden.

WCHL 2013 Community Forum

Community leaders and neighbors came to the WCHL and offices yesterday with one goal in mind: to discuss our beloved community. Big names like Holden Thorp, Brian Chacos, Barry Jacobs, Reilly Parker and many more all spoke at the forum.