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Former head of George W. Bush Center resigns after stormy tenure leading University of North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Margaret Spellings – a former education secretary to President George W. Bush – has resigned as president of the University of North Carolina.

The public university’s Board of Governors voted Friday to approve a separation package for Spellings, who has served as president of the state’s 17-campus system since March 2016. Details of the package were not immediately available.

Spellings is halfway through a five-year contract she began in March 2016, after the Republican-majority North Carolina university board forced out her predecessor, who got the job under Democratic control.

Spellings’ national reputation was seen as a boost for the schools that together enroll more than 220,000 students, and she spent her first months visiting campuses and building relationships.

But some power brokers in the Republican-led state legislature saw her name recognition as allowing her too much independence, and she quickly figured into the culture wars marking the rise of hard-right political values in North Carolina.

Spellings complied, if unenthusiastically, when the university system became a central battleground over a state law limiting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. The university system was sued because the law also required transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.

The law led to companies, concerts and conferences shunning North Carolina. Spellings said last year that people recruited for university jobs had ruled out moving to North Carolina because of the law.

“I know people have withdrawn their candidacy,” Spellings told The Associated Press in an interview. “But how many? To what effect? Were they not coming anyway? We’ll never know.”

Spellings, 60, was reproached for a decision last year to request added security in the wake of deadly racist violence in Charlotte, Virginia, and a majority of board members signed a letter criticizing “weakness” in the system’s response to plans for huge protests demanding the removal of a Confederate soldier statue from a central spot on the flagship Chapel Hill campus.

Spellings and former governing board chairman Louis Bissette wrote to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seeking state help with security because campus police feared a potentially dangerous confrontation.

The Confederate “Silent Sam” statue was later torn down by demonstrators. The Board of Governors demanded that campus officials produce a plan by the middle of November about what to do next.

The university board has almost entirely been replaced since Spellings’ hiring was announced three years ago.

The panel also has challenged the hiring choices of the former Texas political operative, who became the first UNC president since the 1950s without an advanced academic degree. At least two of her choices to head campuses were challenged by statewide board members and her pick for chancellor of Western Carolina University in July was upended after one of the governors recruited an outside firm to investigate Spellings’ candidate.

Spellings’ contract outlines that she will be paid one year of salary of at least $775,000 if she’s fired without cause. She received a $90,000 incentive bonus in 2017 and another $95,000 bonus earlier this year.

Spellings’ compensation ranked 13th among U.S. public university executives in 2016-17, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier in July.

She came to North Carolina after running the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. She also served on the board of directors for a student-loan collection company and for the for-profit University of Phoenix’s parent company.

As Bush’s education secretary from 2005 to 2009, Spellings oversaw the initial implementation of the No Child Left Behind federal education law. In 2006, she convened the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which released a report calling on colleges to focus more on training students for jobs and encouraging research that businesses could commercialize.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio

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