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Alumni leaders question ECU's actions

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Heath Bowman

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By Bobby Burns
The Daily Reflector

Monday, February 4, 2019

The leaders of a selection committee defended their process to choose ECU grads for a young alumni awards ceremony and questioned actions by the university that led to the abrupt resignation last week of the alumni relations director.

All selections for the 40 under 40 awards ceremony were thoroughly screened by the selection committee and staff at the university, Robert E. Cherry Jr. and Shannon L.O. Russell wrote in a letter on Friday to Alumni Association Board of Directors Chairman Michael Aho.

“We are writing on behalf of the ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Committee in our current roles as co-chairs to address the allegations raised concerning the Class of 2019 selection process,” Cherry and Shannon wrote in a letter provided to The Daily Reflector by Aho.

“We felt it was necessary to provide the ECU Alumni Association Board of Directors, our fellow alumni, and other university stakeholders with a record of the nomination and honoree selection process.”

Concerns over the selections prompted administrators to consider changes to the ceremony, according to a statement from ECU and others involved with the process. The concerns were raised after the selections had been announced, a date for the event had been set and promotions had started online, in social media and via email.

Heath Bowman, associate vice chancellor for alumni affairs, tendered his resignation Jan. 29 after receiving a request to take part in postponing the ceremony and in punitive measures against alumni board members, according to his resignation letter. Bowman said the request was made without substantive justification and created an environment that did not allow him to effectively perform his duties.

ECU issued a statement following the resignation that said concerns about the divisive nature of certain selections were voiced from within the university as well as by external stakeholders.

“Given the widespread concerns and the need for an internal review, various options were considered for this year’s recognition event, including rescheduling the program to coincide with ECU’s homecoming celebration,” the Jan. 30 statement said. “Contrary to some reports, at no time was cancellation of the event contemplated.”

The letter by Cherry and Shannon it was “difficult to understand” why the university removed all ECU 40 Under 40 event information from the ECU website and unpublished social media announcements naming honorees while the options were considered.

“It is unclear how ‘rescheduling’ would resolve any claimed ‘internal’ and ‘external’ concerns with the claimed ‘divisive nature’ of any named honorees, but might more accurately indicate an intention or serious contemplation by university officials to cancel the event,” the letter said.

Cherry and Shannon said in the letter that they were never contacted about an internal review of the selection process, suggesting it would be appropriate for them to be contacted as co-chairs overseeing the process.

ECU’s statement, however, says only that an internal review is needed, not that one was conducted.

Cherry and Shannon wrote that the selection process was thorough.

They reported 147 alumni were nominated and a committee comprised of nine members including the two co-chairs, two Alumni Association representatives, one Student Affairs representative and four past honorees reviewed and scored the applications.

Finalists and alternates were identified based on collective score averages, the letter said. On Jan. 3 the Student Affairs representative sent their names to the University Advancement research office for eligibility verification, criminal background review and application veracity investigation.

The research office flagged three finalists, which resulted in two being disqualified, the letter said. The office did not raise any concern about the inclusion of John Bream, a Salisbury physician who’s been overtly critical of leadership at ECU, or any other finalist at that time.

Bream was not flagged by the University Advancement research office “nor was any concern raised related to his application or eligibility shared with the committee co-chairs until after the 2019 Class was published on the ECU website and social media account on Jan. 16. All ECU website and social media account references were removed approximately two days later,” the letter said.

The letter defended the character of all of the selections:

“We have found in the past three years of reading nomination materials to be (sic) consistently inspired and humbled by the shared professional accomplishments, acts of community service and volunteerism, yet most importantly the abundance of Pirate Pride expressed within the applications. We would challenge any individual to find a single application where a nominee has not expressed either gratitude, love, or dedication to our great institution.”

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

 

FULL TEXT OF LETTER

February 1, 2019

Michael C. Aho ’02, Chairman

ECU Alumni Association and Board of Directors

Via email

Dear Chairman Aho,

We are writing on behalf of the ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Committee (hereinafter, “Committee”) in our current roles as co-chairs to address the allegations raised concerning the Class of 2019 selection process. We felt it was necessary to provide the ECU Alumni Association (hereinafter “ECUAA”) Board of Directors, our fellow alumni, and other university stakeholders with a record of the nomination and honoree selection process. We have prepared written narrative as an overview to our Committee actions and present corresponding documentary evidence of files we currently and historically have utilized in our nomination and selection process. We offer these items to assist your investigation into the allegations outlined in the resignation letter of the ECUAA’s President and CEO related to the ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Awards.

The primary nomination process for the Class of 2019 was open July 31, 2018 to October 31, 2018. Secondary nominations closed on November 9, 2018; resulting in 147 nominees. The Committee was comprised of 9 (nine) members: two (2) co-chairs; two (2) ECU Alumni Association representatives; one (1) Student Affairs representative; and four (4) past honorees. The Committee mission, purpose, structure is contained in the ECU 40 Under 40 Committee Structure Student Affairs policy. In November 2018, the Committee started the review process with eleven (11) members but two (2) members had a sudden work conflict and was unable to complete the review by the needed deadline. The Committee began reviewing nomination and submitted all scores by December 20, 2018; top 40 scoring nominees (finalists) and alternates were identified based on collective score averages. On January 3, 2019 the designated Student Affairs staff submitted the names of the finalist and alternates to the University Advancement research office for eligibility verification, criminal background review, and application veracity investigation.

The University Advancement research office found three (3) finalist “flags” which resulted in two (2) finalists being disqualified and one (1) finalist maintaining inclusion within the Class of 2019. The conversations and implemented action steps pertaining to finalist “flags” are conducted through essential Student Affairs staff and University Advancement in consultation with Committee chairs; the rationale for such is provided in the overview documents included in this correspondence submission. The nominee who has been named by various media outlets was not “flagged” by the University Advancement research office nor was any concern raised related to his application or eligibility shared with the Committee co-chairs until after the 2019 Class was published on the ECU website and social media account on January 16, 2019. All ECU website and social media account references were removed approximately two (2) days later.

The official statement on the resignation/ECU 40 Under 40 allegations released by Chief Communications Officer, Tom Eppes, are in direct conflict with our personal experiences as Committee co-chairs. We were never informed of an “internal review” despite holding a leadership role within the program and arguably the most pertinent information as to the process. Furthermore, as Committee co-chairs it is difficult to understand the university’s rationale to remove all ECU 40 Under 40 event information from the ECU website to include: the names of the honorees; awards banquet ticket purchase links; and previously posted social media announcements naming the Class of 2019 honorees while the “various options were considered for this year’s recognition event, including rescheduling the program to coincide with ECU’s homecoming celebration.” It is unclear how “rescheduling” would resolve any claimed “internal” and “external” concerns with the claimed “divisive nature” of any named honorees but might more accurately indicate an intention or serious contemplation by university officials to cancel the event. Ultimately, we find comfort in knowing ECU is a public institution funded by taxpayer dollars thereby requiring university records to include decision making timelines, rationales, and responsible parties or employees which are subject to public inspection and access. The power of a citizen or entity’s right to public records has limited exemption. Although personnel matters would likely be exempt from public disclosure, the decision-making process involving a leadership award banquet time, place, and manner is certainly subject to public review.

The nomination and selection process was consistent with the process used to make the nomination selections in the previous two (2) years for the Class of 2018 and Class of 2017. We have personal knowledge as to the ECU 40 Under 40 program from past three (3). It is our perspective, the eligibility standards and committee practices for this award are also consistent with previous years. The Committee members are only allowed to score nomination materials based on an articulated rubric which contains both quantitative and qualitative measures. It should also be noted, we did not find any disparaging comments raised against the university as an entity nor university official. We did not encounter any divisive rhetoric in any of the applications; these claims are counterintuitive to the caliber of individuals nominated for the ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Award. In fact, we have found in the past three (3) years of reading nomination materials to be consistently inspired and humble by the shared professional accomplishments, acts of community service and volunteerism, yet most importantly the abundance of Pirate Pride expressed within the applications. We would challenge any individual to find a single application where a nominee has not expressed either gratitude, love, or dedication to our great institution.

The ECU 40 Under 40 will be celebrating the 5th Anniversary and hosting the induction banquet of the Class of 2019 on Saturday March 23, 2019, 6:00pm-9:00pm at the ECU Main Campus Student Center Greenville, NC. Please join us for an evening dedicated to honoring our fellow alumni and witnessing the impact of an ECU education and comprehensive Student Life experience! Ticket information is available online (again) on the ECU website https://ecu.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_5aSdIIF1Ise06s5 . We welcome any questions pertaining to this correspondence and in the spirit of transparency invite you to disseminate this correspondence with supplements to any interested stakeholder.

GO Pirates,

Robert E. Cherry, Jr. ‘04 Shannon L. O. Russell, J.D. ‘05

Co-chair Co-chair

ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Committee ECU 40 Under 40 Leadership Committee

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