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ECU Chancellor says residence issue is a distraction

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Chancellor of ECU, Cecil Staton talks about the ongoing coverage about his place of residency during an interview, inside of the Spilman Building on campus Monday, Jan. 29, 2018.


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The East Carolina University chancellor said Monday that his institution has more important things to focus on than the distractions created by the search for a new residence.

Chancellor Cecil Staton said that he and his wife were informed on their arrival in Greenville that the trustees thought that work on their residence, the Dail House, would not be completed until June of 2016. The renovations turned into a much bigger proposition than anyone imagined at the time, and the Statons have been living in temporary housing for 19 months, he said.

Staton said he has been concerned about some of the things he has read implicating that he has had a role in the renovation decision process and the subsequent search for a new residence.

“I am not a part of this process. I’m a bystander,” he said. “I have intentionally not gotten involved in it. This is something the trustees and the ECU Foundation have to decide. They need to take a long-term view because chancellors come and go. Catherine and I have attempted to stay out of this. My only hope is that this will get resolved, because after 19 months, we still have things boxed up in Georgia, with nowhere to move them.

“(The chancellor’s residence) is a tool, and all chancellors across the system have this,” he said. “ECU’s tool should not be more or less than the caliber of the university that we are. I trust that decision to the trustees and the foundation, working together to figure what’s in the best interests of ECU.

“Even though I’m going to get blamed — because every time you talk about this, it’s the chancellor’s name in the articles — in reality, I have nothing to do with this,” Staton said. “I am required to live in whatever housing the university provides for us, and we will live wherever they provide housing.”

He declined to offer an opinion about the suitability of any piece of real estate, citing the need for privacy because of the sensitive nature of such pursuits, but said the board’s real estate committee did seek his opinions about what an ECU chancellor’s residence ought to provide and accomplish.

“There are certain things that are going to be out there for a chancellor’s residence at any institution in 2018,” he said. “One is having a certain level of privacy, which my family deserves to have at times, just as any family wants to have. If you don’t have some kind of demarcation between the public and private areas, you don’t really have a home. In an ideal world, you want a home where that is part of the equation.”

Staton said he also is concerned about disruptions and inconveniences to neighbors that a chancellor’s residence can cause, and conversely, disruptions to a chancellor’s family life that can be caused by neighborhood activities.

Chris Dyba, ECU vice chancellor for advancement and president of the ECU Foundation said the acreage and wide berth that the house in a cul de sac at the Star Hill Farm subdivision offers was a major consideration in its selection for a new chancellor’s residence.

“Aside from providing an adequate home for the family, the chancellor’s home should be viewed as a tool for the advancement of the institution, pure and simple,” Staton said.

Short of saying the current residence cannot meet that need, Staton pointed to the cost for making it adequate for that purpose.

“If you want to spend the $3 million-plus it would cost, you could make it into a more suitable situation,” he said. “The powers that be felt it was an exorbitant price to spend on a 90-year-old home. I happen to think that’s right; it’s hardly defensible. that’s a huge number if you can do it for less in some other setting. That kind of property isn’t just sitting around Greenville or Pitt County. That’s why we’re here 19 months later.”

When asked whether conditions within the College View Historic Neighborhood where the current chancellor’s residence sits are suitable for that purpose, Staton said that his predecessor’s (Steve Ballard) comments on the subject were adequate to summarize the situation.

Ballard said last week that privacy, noise and safety were particular concerns for his children. Shootings in the neighborhood, downtown bar traffic and similar issues had their effect, he said. There also were serious age-related issues with the building’s integrity, he said.

“Many people, including the media, asked me whether it was time to change the chancellor’s residence,” Ballard said. “I think I answered honestly that, yes, now is the time to make that decision.”

Staton said he could not comment on the advantages or disadvantages the Dail House presents for connecting with the student population because he never has lived there. He said he maintains his connection to students through campus-based student activities and individual contacts at his office or at his home.

“I don’t think any of that will change, regardless of where we will be sleeping,” he said. “I don’t think being right there, a mile away or three will make a difference in 2018.”

Staton and Dyba said that ECU has the best interests of the TRUNA neighborhood in mind regardless of whether the chancellor is sleeping at the Dail House. Staton said he would like to see the residence renovated and continue to be used as much as before for events, lectures or museum space.

“I don’t think anyone is advocating for that home to no longer be an integral part of the university,” he said. “We tend to buy properties adjacent to the university. We’re not going to jettison it.”

Dyba said he is aware of concerns shared by the Greenville Historic Preservation Commission and others about its decision to look elsewhere for a chancellor’s residence. The commissioners said they fear the conversion of the chancellor’s house and the five adjacent properties it owns from residential into office space. He said the topic is a fair conversation point in the future.

Staton declined to publicly comment when asked whether the university could have been more transparent in its deliberations about the future of the property after deciding it was no longer suitable for a chancellor’s residence.

“I will say that I view this (situation) as a distraction,” Staton said. “ECU is on a trajectory I saw when I decided to come here, and I have been clear that if we can avoid distractions and a little bit of small-mindedness, this university has an incredibly significant potential. I’d much rather be talking about the Rural Prosperity Initiative and the wonderful things our colleges and schools are accomplishing through the faculty and students.

“I firmly reject the idea from anyone who says that because we’re in Greenville, in the east, ECU does not deserve world-class facilities; not just the house, but anything. That’s why I’m fighting for a new education center for the Brody School of Medicine. We’re training doctors there in a 40-year-old building that is inadequate.”  

Dyba said the ECU foundation did not ask the UNC Board of Governors for any financial assistance for the purchase of the Star Hill Farm property, and Staton said he has not asked anybody for anything, other than some answers from the trustees about the status of a permanent home for his family after being in temporary quarters for more than a year.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.