News: CJ Exclusives

Departing ECU chancellor confirms conversations about his exit have been happening for ‘some time’

CJ photo by Don Carrington
CJ photo by Don Carrington

East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton didn’t initiate his resignation, and discussions with UNC leadership about his impending exit have been ongoing, he confirmed at a news conference Monday.

Carolina Journal first reported Staton’s pending resignation Sunday night.

At the news conference, the departing chancellor said he signed a non-disparagement agreement last week, and he refused to “speak ill of anyone.” When asked if there was any truth to CJ’s November reports about a possible Jan. 1 exit date, the chancellor said that while he couldn’t remember exact dates without retracing calendars and emails, “Yeah, there have been conversations for some time.”

Earlier, Staton told reporters, “Today is about celebrating the wonderful things that have occurred while we’ve been here.”

Staton noted several successes during his three-year stint at ECU. He raised $213 million as part of a $500 million capital campaign, oversaw several large renovation and building projects, focused on increased financial aid for students, and revamped ECU’s athletics program, among other accomplishments.

When asked why he would leave now, Staton kept his answer simple.

“I would say to you there are probably good questions there, and I will leave you to ask them, and ponder them, and hopefully you will be able to find some answers at some point of time.”

“There are some storms you cannot weather,” Staton said, quoting “Les Miserables.”

“We’ve made the decision we think is in our best interest, and in the best interest of ECU.”

The relationship among Staton; Harry Smith, an ECU graduate who chairs of the UNC System Board of Governors; and other officials at ECU and the UNC System has stirred controversy.

Staton has faced harsh criticism for ECU’s athletics, among many other things. Most of those problems were inherited, and Staton was working hard to turn things around, according to multiple accounts from members of UNC’s Board of Governors. (See earlier reporting here.)

Smith has a personal vendetta against Staton and worked tirelessly to push him out, BOG member Steve Long said Monday in a public letter. Long said Interim UNC President Dr. Bill Roper removed Staton at Smith’s request.

In a phone interview with WRAL, Smith said “everything in Steve’s letter is actually incorrect,” and “I didn’t ask the president to do this in any shape form or fashion.”

In a Monday email to CJ, UNC System general counsel Tom Shanahan repeated Staton wasn’t fired; he resigned.

Smith also told WRAL he took issue with some of Staton’s policy decisions, but “I’ve never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil.”

But an email Smith sent in July to Reps. John Bell, R-Wayne, and Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, minced few words about the chancellor. Smith referred to a News & Observer op-ed column by Staton which argued the General Assembly’s budget shortchanged ECU.

“The comment Cecil chose to make about ECU having the large cut in funding with no explanation is completely in appropriate,” he wrote. “It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university. Leaders take accountability and they don’t point the finger. I’m happy to sit down with Cecil and explain in great detail the many issues we have had under his leadership that he was in direct control over that has greatly hurt and divided ECU.”

Kel Normann, a member of the ECU Board of Trustees, told CJ he wasn’t reappointed to the board because he supported Staton. UNC needs better governance, he said.

“If the Board of Governors were to ask me right now, would I serve again, and say that they’re not going to accept the current slate [of appointees] for the ECU Board of Trustees … my answer would be ‘as long as Harry Smith is chair of the Board of Governors, I have no interest in serving.’”