BYH, some see the glass as half empty. I say just get a smaller glass and quit complaining....

Documents reveal discord over ECU chancellor

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ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton talks to media about the decision to release athletic director Jeff Compher on March 9, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Refelctor)

Harry Smith.jpg
Kieran Shanahan

By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Friday, August 3, 2018

An email from the UNC Board of Governors chairman last month took ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton to task for an op-ed he wrote, and the university’s trustees later delivered a letter to the system’s president underlining their support for Staton, according to a Friday news report and officials involved with the exchanges.

Harry Smith, UNC board chairman and an ECU alumnus, spoke to Carolina Journal News Service about an July 15 email it obtained from him to state Reps. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, and John Bell, R-Craven, expressing his displeasure with the previous day’s op-ed by Staton published in the News & Observer.

The op-ed, “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,” Carolina Journal reported.

In an interview with The Daily Reflector on Friday, Smith said he told Murphy and Bell in the email that he thought Staton’s comment was “completely inappropriate.”

“It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university,” the UNC board chairman wrote in the email, as reported by Carolina Journal and confirmed by Smith.

UNC President Margaret Spellings, who nominated Staton as ECU chancellor, at the time lauded his reputation of “great integrity, sound decision making, and strong commitment to outreach.” Smith said the July 14 op-ed was out of line with that characterization.

“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 confirmed telling Bell and Murphy.

“The many issues” include a $1.26 million employment buyout the ECU trustees approved in March for Athletic Director Jeff Compher less than a year after approving a contract extension for him, Smith told Carolina Journal. 

Smith told the ECU Trustees at their meeting in March that he had not been in favor of renewing Compher’s contract. He also believes that the $60-million investment in the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium southside expansion was unnecessary and would have been better invested in the athletes’ needs

Smith also has disagreed with the ECU Foundation’s purchase of a $1.3 million off-campus home for the chancellor and his family, saying, “It doesn’t represent who the people of eastern North Carolina are.”

Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan confirmed with The Daily Reflector on Friday the Carolina Journal report that trustees sent a letter to Spellings ten days after the email 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 in the July 25 letter obtained by Carolina Journal. “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.”

“Harry is an individual with strong beliefs and is dedicated to higher education issues,” Shanahan told The Daily Reflector on Friday. “While we are in agreement on a lot of things philosophically, we also find ourselves in different spots tactically on how to best achieve goals.”

He said that those differences can, at times, make it difficult to resolve ECU issues, especially those that have to go before the Board of Governors.

“There is a chain of command, and the system is set up to trust the people on the ground — the faculty and staff — to work with the system president, Margaret Spellings, for operations and strategic implementation. The governors have a specific role in some instances and general oversight in others. There can be either miscommunication up and down the line or misperceptions. Sometimes by the time they reach the governors, it can take on a new life from what the facts on the ground.”

Shanahan said that 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.

Smith said on Friday that there is no effort to oust Staton. 

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.

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

On Friday, Smith repeated his determination to speak clearly and openly on issues impacting ECU and the 17-university system, while maintaining support and a cool demeanor.

“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 all of our universities,” he said.

An ECU spokeswoman said Staton was away from the campus Friday and unavailable for comment.

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