After a week of public turmoil and bad press, University of North Carolina Board of Governors member Steve Long opened a March 22 meeting at Appalachian State University by offering his regrets for how he handled his criticism of board Chairman Harry Smith.
On March 18, East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton announced he was resigning, that he’d signed a non-disparagement agreement, and that he was taking an almost $600,000 separation deal.
Immediately after that announcement, Long took to the media to berate Smith with allegations the chairman directed UNC System Interim President Bill Roper to remove Staton from his position. Long claimed the firing was the result of Smith’s irrational personal vendetta against the chancellor.
“Harry Smith has done damage to the University of North Carolina system and particularly to East Carolina University,” Long wrote in a March 18 letter. “Until he is gone, Harry Smith will continue to do damage to our State’s greatest asset.”
But Long seemed to change tune only a few days later, when he apologized to Smith and the board for the way he voiced his dissatisfaction.
“I did not handle this matter in the right way,” Long said. “It was not civil or respectful to you and the Board of Governors, and for that I sincerely apologize.”
Click play to watch video of the news conference above.
Smith, who frequently cites a small but vocal and “emotional” minority of people who share Long’s views, accepted the apology. Long’s comments were the result “a lot of passion,” Smith said. With that, the matter was seemingly settled.
The incident followed a similar pattern in how the UNC BOG handles conflict: out of the public eye.
Smith said Long approached him March 20 and they had a private conversation about the dispute.
“A lot of times people don’t have the facts and data that we deal with,” Smith said of his conversation with Long during a press conference after the board meeting.
Smith said Long was passionate about making a public apology.
On March 19, CJ received multiple credible reports that a board member, Tom Fetzer, was collecting votes to publicly censure Long at Friday’s meeting.
Fetzer’s response to CJ’s request for comment was to demand sources. CJ refused and received no answers to questions.
Staton’s resignation was negotiated behind closed doors. Neither Roper nor Smith would say who initiated the chancellor’s resignation. Staton said Monday the resignation wasn’t his idea.
When CJ pushed for an answer, Roper simply responded, “I don’t have the legal obligation to answer your question.”
Roper indirectly confirmed he didn’t independently seek Staton’s resignation, stating, “What I did shortly after starting [in January] was to continue conversations that had been under way for quite a long time about the situation at ECU and the best way to get the university to a good place.”
CJ reported in November that Staton planned to leave as early as Jan. 1. At the time, Staton denied agreeing to resign. Until this week, the UNC System never has denied any offer was considered. Now, Staton and Roper have indirectly confirmed talks were under way.
Personnel matters are private, and only the university and individuals of concern should be privy to them, Roper said.
“Thank you for your questions, but that’s all I’m going to say,” he told reporters.
Roper also said maintaining transparency was an important goal for the system.
Smith, who since November has taken issue with CJ’s reporting on the situation with Staton and ECU, repeated his statements that facts, not emotions, matter.
CJ revisited requests to release a 360-degree performance review Spellings conducted last year. In November, Staton asked the UNC System to release the review. CJ requested a release as well.
Two months later, a group of more than 200 prominent ECU alumni, faculty members, and supporters, also wrote a letter backing Staton and asking for the 360’s release.
“I don’t think it does any good to for us to put out information that would be embarrassing to the chancellor or the university,” Smith said, alluding to “multiple requests” for certain public records.
CJ is still waiting for other sets of public records, which it has requested, from the UNC System and ECU.