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Changes afoot for leadership at East Carolina

Kel Normann
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Kel Normann

Harry Smith.jpg

By Bobby Burns
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Significant changes in leadership are expected at East Carolina University in the coming days as the UNC Board of Governors prepares to unseat two trustees and fill a third, open seat.

Two more open positions on the 12-member board will be filled later by the state legislature, resulting in five new voices and possibly eroding support for ECU's embattled chancellor, Cecil Staton.

The current board has stood almost unanimously behind Staton through criticism over athletics, finances and enrollment from vocal alums and similar concerns raised by Board of Governor's Chairman Harry Smith, a Greenville businessman and an alumnus himself.

The trustees last deliberated on Staton's performance during a closed session at their retreat in Pinehurst in February, Trustee Kel Normann said Saturday. Word of the discussion and who supported the chancellor quickly leaked, and Normann promptly received an email from Smith that indicated he would not be reappointed, he said.

"I wasn't surprised," Normann said about the Board of Governors passing him over for a second term. "As you know, it has been very contentious the last two years because Harry has felt he's had a lot of frustrations with the Board of Trustees because we have supported our chancellor. He has been very vocal that he does not think our chancellor is the right guy for the job."

Normann, a financial adviser from Sanford, was up for consideration by the system board along with Leigh Fanning, an executive with R.A. Jeffreys Distributing Company in Greenville, and Mark Copeland, an executive with Ernst & Young Accounting in Dallas, Texas. Deborah Davis, a hospital executive in Richmond, Va., has served two terms and was not eligible for reappointment.

Multiple sources report the UNC system indicated to ECU last week that Normann and Fanning will not be reappointed. Copeland, who in January publicly criticized the trustees board, will be reseated. Three people who were not among a group recommended by ECU are rumored to be up for the seats held by Normann, Fanning and Davis.

Smith said on Friday that the UNC board's governance committee has chosen four candidates for approval by the full board when it meets on Thursday in Boone. He confirmed not all of the trustees eligible for reappointment will return but declined to identify who the new members will be. Those names could be available as early as Monday.

The finalists were selected from a large field of nominees, Smith said. Discussions between the committee, board liaisons to each of the 17 universities and officials at the universities have been ongoing for weeks in what Smith called a robust process to appoint leaders at all the state's schools.

Smith said he does have concerns about the health of East Carolina and will continue to address deficiencies he sees in enrollment, athletics, finances and elsewhere, but he is not working to install trustees who will be more critical of Staton.

"What we look for in trustees is people who will put the institution first," he said. "The job of the trustees is to ensure the institutions are preforming well."

The committee considers many criteria including experience and skill sets, the level of commitment -- time, energy and effort -- candidates are able to put forward, and engagement with their institutions, he said.

"In no way, shape, form or fashion do we ever put trustees in there in some kinda form or schematic where we're trying to target leadership," he said. "That's just a very false mantra."

Trustees must avoid falling into the trap of being beholden to their institutions in order to ensure the schools are performing well on key measures, including demand for their product, acceptance rates, enrollment rates, student quality and performance, and fiscal performance of athletics and academics, he said.

Any trustee or board of governors member must ask tough questions, he said. "When I pushed back against the stadium contract and conference contract and the hiring process (at ECU), it's not something I was trying to be contentious about, I was exercising my oath of office in what I thought was my responsibility in a governing body."

Smith said he does think ECU's board needs fresh voices, but would not comment on the performance of Chancellor Staton.

"Cecil reports to Bill Roper, not to me. What I have always said is this, the Board of Governors will never, ever take action (against a chancellor) without the support of the trustees or the president at any of our schools. That's not going to happen while I'm chairman of the Board of Governors."

ECU requested appointments for all three sitting members who were eligible for reappointment by the UNC board, according to information provided by the university. It nominated five others as well: Dr. Todd Kornegay, a Wilmington physician; Scott Shook and Michael Overton, Greenville businessmen; Carl Rogers of DuBose National Energy in Wrightsville Beach; and Dave Fussell of Duplin Winery in Wallace.

At least two of the five were never contacted by the UNC System after initially being informed that they were under consideration, Normann said, raising concerns among some at ECU that their nominations were not taken seriously.

Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan vented those concerns after a special called trustees meeting on Wednesday, making statements to the news media afterward that the UNC system was circumventing the process. ECU officials said it's unusual for sitting members not to be appointed to a second term, which ensures continuity of leadership -- more experienced board members typically are better equipped to take on leadership roles on the board.

Passing over Normann, Fanning and other nominees also seemed to ignore long relationships and support of ECU, officials said.

They also expressed concern that that no woman was among the UNC system's slate of nominees to replace Fanning or Davis, the only women on the trustees board. Smith would not say whether a woman was among the finalists.

"These people were nominated because they are engaged with the university," Normann said. "They have supported it and served on many of its boards ... so their learning curve is not as steep and they can have an immediate impact."

Smith said the vetting process was robust and inclusive, and winning and losing is just part of it. He said he put in an additional nomination for Shook, currently chairman of the Community College Board of Governors, although Shook did not make the final cut.

Shook, who was among more than 100 community leaders who signed a letter to UNC officials in support of Staton, said Friday it was an honor to be considered.

"I hope whoever is appointed ... will have the university's best interests at heart. We need thoughtful, experienced leadership, not people who make rash, irresponsible decisions based on whimsical emotions. We cannot afford to have agenda-driven members serving at this crucial time for ECU."

Normann said he harbored no hard feelings and offered praise for Smith.

"Harry is smart. He sees it as a full time job. He works endlessly and he expects everybody else to do the same."

However, Smith's vision for East Carolina does not line up with the chancellor's, and Staton has been attacked mercilessly over two years from many corners in fashions as embarrassing as banners flown over the football stadium, Normann said.

Much of the criticism has been unfair, Normann said, and the majority of the board supported Staton when he was faced with a decision to step down.

"There was great support for the chancellor that if he wanted to transition and move on with a package, we were in total support of that, but we were not not going to just fire him and were not going to give him a vote of no confidence."

It's uncertain how a new board might approach the situation, Normann said, and it's unclear if Staton will stick.

"He's a good man," Normann said. It would be nice to see how much Staton could accomplish without having to defend himself like he has the last two years, he said.

Whether Staton stays or goes, it's important for everyone involved with the university to put their differences behind them, he said.

"We need everybody working together," Normann said. "It's very rare that you have an ECU grad working as the chair of the Board of Governors. Harry can do great things for this university. He is a smart guy, he understands how the university works, he has great power and influence and he can help build this university, but we have to have everybody working together. We can't be divided."

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