News: CJ Exclusives

UNC, ECU board members shoot down ‘rumor’ Staton is in trouble

Tensions between UNC board members and Chancellor Cecil Staton overblown, BOG Chairman Smith says

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

Rumors that East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton could lose his job are false, despite documents showing tension between Staton and the UNC system’s Board of Governors, board leader Harry Smith told Carolina Journal.

Times have changed for Staton since 2016, when the board unanimously elected him to lead ECU. Opinions of the former Georgia GOP state senator and Valdosta State University interim president were largely positive. UNC President Margaret Spellings, who nominated Staton, lauded his reputation of “great integrity, sound decision making, and strong commitment to outreach.”

The chancellor’s image has taken hits.

“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.

In the letter, Smith reacted to an op-ed column penned by Staton and published July 14 in the News & Observer. The piece, “In spite of challenges, the future of ECU is bright,” lit fires from Staton’s comment that his institution was “handed the largest budget cut for any of the state’s public universities: $1.1 million, with no reasonable explanation.”

The comment was “completely inappropriate,” Smith wrote.

“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.”

This isn’t the first time university representatives and the BOG have been at odds with each other. In 2016, Smith and Kieran Shanahan, chairman of ECU’s Board of Trustees, tangled over a plan Smith devised for off-campus housing, WRAL reported.

According to the report, either the university or a private investment group — possibly with Smith as one of the investors — would buy a foreclosed apartment complex and rent some units to students. Smith co-owns off-campus student housing units in Greensboro and Georgia, WRAL said.

Shanahan said the deal would work only if ECU forced students to rent some of the apartments. He didn’t back the proposal and 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 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.

CJ contacted Shanahan — who was a lead signatory of the letter — asking a series of questions about the correspondence and about Staton’s relationship with the UNC board.

The ECU BOT’s letter to Spellings turned out to be unnecessary, Shanahan said. But the board does share Staton’s concerns that ECU needs more money from the General Assembly, given the school’s quality of programs and its impact on the regional economy.

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 said.

Staton is taking the heat, but many of ECU’s problems may not be the chancellor’s fault, BOG member David Powers told CJ.

“I know Chancellor Staton is a bit beleaguered right now, but I’m not sure some of the issues discussed are of his doing,” Powers said. “He has great aspirations for East Carolina, and the ECU Board of Trustees and President Spellings have voiced their support of him. We [the BOG] should do all we can to make his tenure successful. ECU is too important to Eastern North Carolina.”

Smith and Spellings met with Staton July 26 in Chapel Hill to discuss the issues in question. The meeting was productive, and the board will support Staton, Smith said.

The UNC board and ECU are moving forward together in a positive way, said ECU spokeswoman Jeannine Manning Hudson.

“I’m not going to mince words a lot, but I’m also not going to do anything that would be hurtful, harmful, or anything against the institutions,” Smith said.

“You know, because I have an opinion, and it may not be in the popular side, and I’m not yelling and screaming about that. But I’m going to have my opinions, and I will tell you I’m always going to support the trustees at every single one of [our universities].”