News: CJ Exclusives

ECU’s Staton denies Carolina Journal story that he intends to resign

East Carolina University's Ragsdale Hall  (Photo courtesy of Flickr)
East Carolina University's Ragsdale Hall (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton has flatly denied any intent to resign early next year, contradicting sources Carolina Journal has cited.

“I’m feeling today a little like I’m in the twilight zone. No, I have not accepted any kind of deal with anyone, and I certainly have not resigned as ECU’s chancellor, and that’s what I plan to keep doing,” he told talk radio host Patrick Johnson Nov. 5.

CJ stands by its reporting, and sources reaffirmed Staton’s offer to leave the campus.

Staton intends to resign Jan. 1, just two weeks before current UNC President Margaret Spellings vacates her post, sources said.

Spellings chose Staton as one of her first executive hires.

In a report published at 4:39 p.m. by the Raleigh News and Observer, ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan called CJ’s story “inaccurate” and said “Cecil continues to work tirelessly for the university, and with the blessing of the board.”

CJ reached out to Shanahan via email at 2:18 p.m., but received no response before the News & Observer released its story. Our publication attempted to contact him again at 5:28 p.m. No answer was received by press time.

Representatives of the University of North Carolina System declined to comment on the story before its first publication at 12:08 p.m. CJ reached out to the system office again at 5:34 p.m., asking for firm confirmation or denial of Staton’s claims, but did not receive a response by press time.

At 1:16 p.m., Staton emailed CJ from his personal account, saying, “I have not agreed to resign. Someone is playing games and being entirely irresponsible. I just had an incredibly positive 360 review.”

At 3:14 p.m., ECU spokeswoman Jeannine Manning Huston answered CJ’s request for comment.  

Chancellor Staton is currently en route to Florida, where he will be representing ECU at the AAC Board of Directors meeting. He confirms that he has neither accepted any deal nor resigned as Chancellor. “My focus will continue to be on serving ECU,” he said.

In his interview with Johnson, Staton called reports of his pending resignation “distractions,” and pointed to the 360 review — an assessment of his performance as chancellor — as a solid reason for him to continue leading ECU.

The report was good, and will likely head to members of the UNC Board of Governors during its regular meeting later this week, Staton said.

Staton also said he would be happy if the report were released to the public.

“I know exactly what that [report] says, and it says this is not the time to talk or even think about making a change,” he said.  

Everyone knows, who doesn’t have their head in the sand, that there obviously have been some people pretty upset with me around athletics, even though some of those people don’t remember some of the challenges in our athletics were things that occured long before I arrived.”

“That being the case, we all know there are some folks out there that fall into that category, and that’s something we’ve been dealing with now for quite some time.”

UNC board Chairman Harry Smith, who in the past has tangled with ECU leaders, including Staton, declined to comment on reports about Staton’s job, the News and Observer reported.

Conflicts with Smith

Emails exchanged in 2016 between Staton, current UNC board Chairman Harry Smith, and ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan show discord between Smith and Staton.

A few months after Staton took office in 2016, Smith — a Greenville businessman and ECU graduate — met with the chancellor and several ECU trustees. Smith’s plan was to purchase, at a large discount, an apartment complex more than three miles from campus. The goal was to turn the complex into student housing.

Smith asked Staton to sign a lease for 10 years, locking down 600 to 800 beds. It was a no-risk deal for Smith, but the plan made little sense for ECU, university leaders told Smith in the emails.

Smith co-owns off-campus student housing units in Greensboro and Georgia, WRAL reported in May.

Shanahan and Smith tangled over the ECU proposal, WRAL said.

The deal would work only if ECU forced students to rent some of the apartments, a move that wouldn’t sit well, Shanahan said.

Shanahan also said it wasn’t right for a member of the UNC Board of Governors to have a financial stake in a project operated by a member institution.

Smith repeatedly attempted to push the deal forward in spite of opposition to the project, an email between Staton former ECU Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance Rick Niswander shows.

Niswander asked Staton to intervene.

“Harry apparently spun up a few [trustees] while he was looking at [the project] the second time, (maybe the first time, too, I don’t know),” Niswander wrote Sept. 14, 2016. “They apparently think that this can provide income to the university and that we should have pursued it.”

“This may be an attempt to get into the operating side of the university,” Niswander continued. “The argument being that we should have told the board about something that we did not do. To me, that is nonsense.”

The project was abandoned.

Smith said when he learned the deal didn’t make financial sense, he dropped it — and that had the proposal gone forward, he would have recused himself from any discussions with ECU trustees or other BOG members.

In August, rumors that Staton’s job was in jeopardy were shot down by Smith, despite documents showing tension between Staton and the BOG.

Smith in July criticized the chancellor for penning an op-ed stating ECU was “handed the largest budget cut for any of the state’s public universities: $1.1 million, with no reasonable explanation.”

“It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university,” Smith wrote in a July 15 email to Reps. Gregory Murphy, R-Pitt, and John Bell, R-Craven.

“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,” Smith told Bell and Murphy.

“The many issues” include a $1.26 million employment buyout ECU’s Board of Trustees overwhelmingly approved for former university Athletic Director Jeff Compher, Smith told CJ.

Compher was widely disliked, and many blamed Staton for the football team’s lackluster performance over two seasons, say reports from the News and Observer. Criticism sprouted from the ECU Pirate Football Facebook, where negative articles about Compher and Staton often appeared. Account administrators shared a March 24 post announcing Smith’s nomination as BOG chairman, tagging it with the line, “Great news for this Pirate!”

Smith, like other BOG members, has taken issue with the ECU Foundation’s purchase of a $1.3 million off-campus home for the chancellor and his family, though that objection was a “personal perspective,” Smith said.

Ten days after Smith emailed Bell and Murphy to apologize for Staton’s editorial, the ECU Board of Trustees sent a letter to Spellings, supporting Staton and his vision.

“The ECU Board of Trustees feel compelled to respond to recent questions that have been raised about Chancellor Cecil Staton,” members wrote July 25. “In July 2017, the Board passed a resolution in support of Chancellor Staton’s priorities. …  Today, this board would like to again express its unequivocal support for the bold leadership, vision, and direction that this chancellor is provided to East Carolina University.”

The UNC board never will “overrun the trustees” and wouldn’t fire Staton without direction from ECU and Spellings, though “I know that rumor was flying … but that rumor never should’ve gotten any legs, and the world is full of rumors as you know,” Smith told CJ in August.