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Letter seeks to quiet Staton critics

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ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton, center, cuts a ribbon during the opening of the new student center on Monday with UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, former Chancellor Steve Ballard, Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor of student affairs, Kieran Shanahan, chairman of the East Carolina Board of Trustees and others.

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By Bobby Burns
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A letter from 130 people with ties to East Carolina University is defending Chancellor Cecil Staton against what it calls unfair criticism and rumors and asks UNC system officials to let Staton lead “without harassment or inappropriate interference.”

The letter, dated Tuesday, was addressed to UNC President Margaret Spellings, who will be stepping down next week, interim president, Dr. Bill Roper, the UNC Board of Governors and the ECU Board of Trustees. It also asks officials to release a performance evaluation of Staton conducted by the system.

It is signed by members of ECU Foundation, former trustees, members of the Greenville’s medical community, political and business leaders. Among them are Ken Chalk, former trustee and former ECU Foundation chairman; Grady-White Boats owner Eddie Smith; Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly; businessman and former state GOP chairman Ferrell Blount; attorney and former trustee Phil Dixon; surgeon Walter Pories; and Vidant Health CEO Michael Waldrum.

Jason Tyson, director of media relations with UNC, said on Wednesday that the system office had received the letter but has no response at this time.

The letter, dated a day after ECU opened its $122 million main campus student center, says Staton has been working under a cloud of unfair accusations and investigations that have been a continued distraction and hindered his ability to lead since his hiring in 2016. One of the biggest public criticisms has been his connection to the problems in the athletics department, the letter said.

“These criticisms are simply symptomatic of today’s social media environment.” the letter states. “In fact we argue that Dr. Staton has done an incredible job in working to bring back athletics with his hires of Dave Hart, Joe Dooley, Jon Gilbert and Mike Houston. To judge the Chancellor on what he has done for athletics is premature at best. We feel his recent hirings prove he has handled athletics as well as possible considering the mounting problems of the last few years.”

The letter does not identify directly sources of criticism but refers to “frivolous charges” regarding questions about his hiring, the use of outside contractors, his role in the purchase of a $1.3 million, off-campus home and other items that have been “repeatedly investigated” by the board of governors.

Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, an ECU alum, criticized Staton in a July email to state legislators for what he thought was an “inappropriate” op-ed Staton wrote in the News & Observer. Smith also was critical of the chancellor’s new residence and the university’s approach to athletics and admissions.

A report by Carolina Journal, an online news outlet published by the Raleigh-based John Locke foundation, also published a report on Nov. 5 citing anonymous sources that Staton would leave his post on Jan. 1 and was seeking a large severance package. Staton told a radio host shortly after the report that he was not resigning.

Following up on persistent reports that Staton had requested a buyout, The Daily Reflector in December requested documents related to the request from the UNC system. Tyson said at that time that no such documents existed.

Staton said during the radio interview that the so-called 360 performance evaluation — conducted early than normal at the request of Spelling — had been overwhelmingly positive and that he had no desire or reason to step down. ECU trustees also have consistently and unanimously demonstrated their support of Staton, including a letter to Spelling on July 25.

ECU and the UNC system have denied multiple requests from the Reflector and other news organizations to release the review. Tuesday’s letter agains asks the UNC system to release the evaluation to demonstrate Staton’s ability and the confidence community members have invested in him.

The writers said they are concerned that rumors persist that Staton will be removed in spite of the support of the trustees and the people who know him best.

“We feel it is time for the evaluation of the Chancellor to become public and we would like to offer our support to him. In fact, we would ask that, with the permission of the Chancellor, the 360 review recently finished be released so that it can become part of the record,” the letter states. “It is confusing that a document designed and paid for by the university would not be available to those of us invested in the university. Many of us gave our time to be interviewed for the document and find it insulting that this document has been hidden from view since its publishing.”

A core group of people who signed the letter have been considering a public show of support for the chancellor. A draft was shared via email with other supporters who began to sign on, sources said.

The letter said ECU is the ultimate engine for the economic success and health care needs of eastern North Carolina and praised Staton’s efforts to lead a comprehensive fundraising campaign, create a rural prosperity initiative, increase research and internationalization and recruit talented people to leadership positions.

“In short we are asking that Chancellor Station be allowed to continue in his position without continued threats,” the letter states. “It seems beneath this great institution for this to continue. It is time for this shameful episode in our university’s history to come to an end and for our Chancellor, Dr. Cecil Staton, to be supported and given every opportunity to lead our university to greatness.”

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329-9572.

ONLINE 

Visit this story on reflector.com to read the complete text of the letter and signatures.

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