News: CJ Exclusives

Attorney: UNC officials ducking duty to disclose ECU chancellor’s 360 review

CJ photo by Don Carrington
CJ photo by Don Carrington

The University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith has recused himself from all communications with East Carolina University, his alma mater, and the third largest school in the system. Now, UNC System offices are refusing to release a personnel review of the school’s embattled Chancellor Cecil Staton — even though Staton has welcomed release of his “360-degree” review, which he says is “incredibly positive.”

University officials say the state’s public records law shields most personnel documents from public view.

UNC’s stonewalling of a request by Carolina Journal to disclose the 360 appears to sidestep state law, renowned media attorney John Bussian says. A provision in the open records law would allow top university officials — including UNC System President Margaret Spellings, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, and, arguably, Staton — to issue a memo ordering the 360 review to be released in the interest of “maintaining the integrity” of the university.

The months-long turmoil involving Staton, Smith, Spellings, and ECU surely affects the integrity of the UNC System and ECU, Bussian says. (Bussian has represented CJ and the John Locke Foundation in several legal challenges against government agencies and is representing CJ in this public-records dispute with UNC.)

Bussian recently prevailed in a legal battle between a Tallahassee, Florida, newspaper and the city government. In the dispute, a court declared government officials couldn’t use their personal mobile devices to conceal text messages and emails involving public business from public view.

Monday, CJ made direct appeals to Spellings and Staton, citing the provision in North Carolina public-records law (N.C. General Statute 126-24) requiring release of the 360 review to protect the integrity of the university and to maintain the quality of services it provides.

At press time, neither Spellings nor Staton had responded to CJ’s request.

A 360-degree review acts like a peer evaluation of administrators. People familiar with the job performance of the subject take part in interviews and questionnaires. The reviewers are asked to provide candid responses and their identities aren’t revealed to the subject. Some 360s primarily use multiple-choice questions. Others rely on essay-style answers to questions, or a combination. Institutions typically tailor the review to the position, compile the responses, and issue a summary report, which is shared with the subject and often other senior officials.

According to UNC officials, the president normally conducts a 360 review of the chancellor at each campus every four years as part of a regular performance review. Though Staton took his position at ECU in April 2016, Spellings ordered Staton’s review a few months ago. CJ has been told dozens of people were included in Staton’s 360, likely including ECU board members, faculty, staff, and Greenville community leaders. Staton has said the review was extremely positive.

Carolina Journal made a formal request for the 360 review Nov. 6, a day after Staton told WHRD radio in Greenville he wanted the review made public. Staton was pushing back against a CJ report, based on sources familiar with the situation, that he intends to leave his post Jan. 1. He cited the 360 review in an email to CJ denying the reports and in the radio interview with Patrick Johnson.

CJ stands by its reporting.

For their part, neither Spellings nor her communications staff has denied CJ’s reporting about Staton’s intentions.

In a Nov. 9 letter to Kieran Shanahan, chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees, Smith said he was ending all communications with ECU — the third-largest campus in the UNC System. In it, Smith said, “There has clearly been an organized effort from a very small, but vocal group to create a false narrative and it’s being done through petty, personal attacks intended to harm or malign me. The ECU Board of Trustees has stated that Chancellor Staton has their support and I fully respect their position.”

UNC System attorney Tom Shanahan denied CJ’s request to disclose the 360 in a Nov. 19 email, sent hours after Bussian (acting as CJ’s attorney) in a letter asked Smith, as chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, to release the 360.

Shanahan responded to Bussian Nov. 20, citing sections of N.C. General Statute 126 claiming personnel records are off-limits. He also suggested further correspondence on the subject be conducted attorney-to-attorney.

The next day, using his personal email, Smith wrote CJ Associate Editor Kari Travis and me, saying in part, “I have not nor am I aware of any board member that’s seen the 360 it’s a management tool not board [sic].”

CJ forwarded the email to Shanahan and Bussian.

Bussian said clearly the discussion over releasing the 360 has damaged the reputation of the university and should trigger the document’s release.

“If there were ever a case presenting the need for the head of the UNC System, the Board, and the head of ECU to release the 360 review to restore the integrity of these institutions, this is it,” Bussian told CJ.

CJ also posed a series of questions by email Nov. 6 to Kieran Shanahan, who said CJ’s reporting was inaccurate. Among other things, CJ asked Shanahan what specifics were inaccurate; if Staton has ever offered his resignation; if any severance packages had been discussed; and if Shanahan would disclose the contents of the 360 report.

Shanahan’s response by email: “BS.”

Associate Editor Kari Travis provided additional reporting for this story.