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An Open Letter to ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts: Will You Stand Up To Spellings?

Dear Editor,

Faculty across the University of North Carolina system are deeply concerned about the UNC Board of Governors’ appointment of Margaret Spellings as President of  the UNC system. Is the best person to run North Carolina’s world-class university system, professors wonder, really a political operative lacking any significant experience in higher education and who is, to boot, a gay-baiting culture warrior with ties to the for-profit education racket?

While many UNC professors are clearly concerned, students soon will be as well. But what about university administrators who run the system’s 16 campuses? What is their take on Spellings—especially when many of her public positions contradict the values that our chancellors and provosts claim to support?

So far, the silence of our campus leaders on Spellings’ appointment has been deafening.

University administrators have not always been so reticent to take stands on public issues, particularly when their campuses come under political attack. They have not always maintained that being amenable is the best way to be heard by Raleigh and the General Administration.

Consider the case of North Carolina’s notorious “speaker ban,” which the legislature adopted in 1963. At a time when many campuses were ablaze with Civil Rights activism, the ban forbade three kinds of speakers from addressing UNC campuses: former members of the Communist Party; people who had advocated overthrowing the US Constitution; and individuals who had “taken the Fifth” while being investigated for subversion.

The “speaker ban” was, of course, vigorously challenged by student groups. It was, after all, the sixties. More surprising, however, is that fact that it was opposed with equal fervor by UNC administrators—notably Chapel Hill’s then chancellor, William B. Aycock. A distinguished law professor, Chancellor Aycock was unsparing in his denunciation of the “speaker ban” as an assault on academic freedom. He characterized the law an “insult,” describing it as “the poorest-drafted legislation [he had] ever seen.”

Before the Greensboro Bar Association, Chancellor Aycock went so far as to call for active (albeit legal) resistance to the law. In a stirring speech, he declared: “There is no member of this audience who, if informed that some foreign power was about to take over and strip us of our fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and press, would not respond to the call to arms. What difference, may I ask, if we accomplish the same results by our own ignorance, misunderstanding and inaction? For me, I prefer to fight — win or lose…”

The appointment of Spellings as a UNC President is the latest battle in the war that the legislature has waged on higher education for five years. Faculty are already mobilizing against this diktat. But it would be refreshing to see some of Chancellor Aycock’s lucid dissent and principled indignation in today’s campus leaders.

To this end, we call on Chancellor Sheri Everts and Provost Darrell Kruger of Appalachian State to take a stand—or, at the very least, to be prepared to take a stand if Spellings threatens the principles our campus upholds. Clearly, Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger have a deep commitment to public higher education and faculty governance. This is a time when those principles must be defended unflinchingly and publicly. Specifically, we ask the following:

– Spellings has a record of making anti-gay statements. Appalachian’s mission statement says the university is committed to a “spirit of inclusion.” Plemmons Student Union displays posters declaring: “Gay? Fine by Me.” Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger: Will you declare your support for gay rights at Appalachian, in the community, and across the UNC system, regardless of Spellings’ position?

– Spellings served on the corporate board of the Apollo Education Group, a leader in the for-profit college sector (in particular, it runs the University of Phoenix). Apollo’s record of greed and contempt for real education is extreme. According to a US Senate investigation of the for-profit college industry, 60% of the students who enrolled in Apollo schools in 2008-2009 had dropped out by mid-2010. Around a quarter of its students defaulted on their loans. Meanwhile, in 2010, federal money made up 89% of Apollo’s revenue. It devoted much of its expenses to marketing, spending far less than public universities on per-student instructional expenses.

Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger: will you protect Appalachian from the for-profit sector’s predatory and often racist practices?

– As Education Secretary, Spellings was largely responsible for implementing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), George W. Bush’s signature education law (which was adopted before her tenure). In promoting testing as a form of accountability, the law introduced a culture of deceit and false reporting into our public education system. It encouraged schools, moreover, to engage in often counter-productive competition with one another. As Diane Ravitch notes: “There should not be an education marketplace, there should not be competition. Schools operate fundamentally … like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration.”

Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger: will you challenge attempts to introduce policies promoting “accountability” and competition within the system that are likely to have the same unfortunate effects as NCLB?

– Between 2009 and 2013, Spellings spearheaded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Campaign for Free Enterprise. This campaign promoted the Free Enterprise Education Act, a piece of legislation that would require public schools to integrate the Chamber’s free-market ideology into their curricula. In particular, the act stipulated that “all public school students” should “receive instruction in the free enterprise system during high school as a stand-alone course lasting at least one semester.”

Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger: Will you resist efforts by Spellings or other financial interest to impose a curriculum on our university in violation of accepted norms of academic freedom and shared governance?

– Finally, Spellings was appointed over the course of a search process in which there was not even an appearance of faculty input. In addition to violating norms of shared governance, the search process will make it difficult for the incoming president to gain the faculty’s trust. Chancellor Everts and Provost Kruger: will you remain committed to open searches for top university positions, in which faculty are consulted in a meaningful way?

Spellings’ appointment as UNC President opens a new era of uncertainty for public higher education in North Carolina. More than ever, what is required is a mobilized and activist faculty and student body—as well as the spirit exemplified by Chancellor Aycock, who understood that sometimes resisting is the only way to survive.

Dr. Michael C. Behrent, Associate Professor of History, President, ASU’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors

Dr. Gregory G. Reck, Professor of Anthropology, Vice-President, ASU’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors