News: CJ Exclusives

Sources: Staton to leave ECU Jan. 1, seeking major buyout

Chancellor has butted heads with current UNC Board of Governors chairman Smith since 2016

East Carolina University Cecil Staton (photo from ECU website)
East Carolina University Cecil Staton (photo from ECU website)

Editor’s Note, 3:15 p.m.: See update below.

East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton will leave his post Jan. 1 — just before University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings leaves Jan. 15 —  Carolina Journal has confirmed from sources familiar with the situation in Greenville.

Staton, in past months the object of criticism from leaders of the UNC System’s Board of Governors, is seeking a severance package greater than what Spellings got upon her resignation, CJ also learned.

“The Board of Trustees reflected on the chancellor’s request during its meeting last week and the Board of Governors may take up Staton’s future during this week’s regular meetings in Chapel Hill,” one source said.

At press time, UNC system representatives declined CJ’s requests for comment.

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 replied by email.

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.

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.