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Chancellor house backlash easy to predict

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The ECU Foundation has a contract on a home in the Star Hill Farms neighborhood for use as a new chancellor's residence.

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

A small amount of foresight may have paved a smoother path forward for the people at the East Carolina University Foundation who are working to buy new digs for the chancellor in posh Star Hill Farms.

Only a little was needed to imagine that the behind-the-scenes negotiation would spark a backlash among many rank-and-file Pirates and more than a few common folk inside and outside of Greenville who oppose a move from the Dail House on the Fifth Street side of campus. The reasons why are plain and simple.

Let’s start with tradition. The chancellor has lived at the Dail House for decades. Hundreds if not thousands of alumni have a personal connection to it. They have served as marshals during events hosted at the house by beloved figures like Leo Jenkins, they have been honored as guests, they have marched by in scores of homecoming parades full of Pirate pride.

There is the community that proximity to campus delivers. The university’s leader, strolling from his residence to his office in Spilman and events nearby keeps him part and parcel to college life. Sure, privacy might be limited, but it’s a public job. If there are concerns about noise or crime, he or she will know them firsthand and can work to ensure campus is safe. If it’s not safe for the chancellor then it’s not safe for the students or their neighbors.

The optics are ugly. The home in Star Hill farms is opulent, a residence most can only dream about, including the hundreds of teachers, nurses and public servants who graduate from ECU each year and the thousands of faculty and staff who work there. Their average salary is about $73,500, the university reports, hardly Star Hill Farm money. To most even the Dail House would be a mansion. A more modest dwelling also would sit better with so many families struggling to afford the rising cost of tuition and fees.

Perhaps the most obvious red flag is the time, energy and money already spent to secure property around the Dail House so that it could be renovated and expanded. ECU purchased five properties bordering the house between 2007 and 2014 for more than more than $1 million. In 2016 it worked with partners in the city and surrounding neighborhood to begin the process of clearing four of them and rezoning another for office use. Stakeholders now are left to wonder how the lots and buildings will be utilized going forward.

None of this is to say that a new residence isn’t appropriate. ECU officials have made strong arguments that it’s time to relocate the chancellor. The strongest among them may be that the price tag for redeveloping the Dail House is substantially higher — they say $3.5 million — than buying the newer home well off campus.

But the fact remains that discussions about the Star Hill Farm property began many months ago. That might have been a good time for ECU decision-makers to alert alumni and the public about this new opportunity, start educating them about why it might be a better option and begin building consensus on what might be done with the existing property.

Instead, the news of their contract to buy the home broke via an online post from Charlotte-based Business North Carolina magazine and created a firestorm of negative reaction on social media and elsewhere. 

It leaves one to wonder if anything would have been said otherwise before the moving trucks showed up on Fifth Street. Now, the leadership at ECU is left with the arduous task of winning back the hearts and minds of the Pirate nation. 

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