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Staton resigns amid controversy: 'There are some storms you cannot weather'

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Outgoing ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton speaks at a Monday news conference announcing his resignation. Staton started his speech by displaying the hammer his father used to mend shoes, which allowed him to be a first generation college student.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Monday, March 18, 2019

ECU’s chancellor announced his resignation Monday but would not discuss specifics about what prompted the decision, citing a non disparagement agreement reached with the UNC system.

Cecil Staton said Monday his departure is effective May 3 but he’ll remain as an adviser to UNC System President Bill Roper and ECU’s interim chancellor until June 30.

Staton will receive his regular salary and benefits through June 30, according to a statement from the system office. East Carolina University will then pay Staton $589,700 by July 15. The payment will come from non-state funds, not state appropriations or money generated by ECU’s tuition or student fee dollars, a UNC System spokesman said.

When asked why he was resigning, Staton paraphrased a song from the musical Les Misérables.

“It tough to reach these decisions, but in the words of that song, ‘There are some dreams you cannot fulfill and there are some storms you cannot weather.’ We made a decision we think is in our best interests,’” Staton said of himself and his wife, Catherine. “We’ve made the decision we think is in our best interests and hopefully in the interest of ECU moving forward.”

Staton came to ECU in April 2016. Since then he’s faced criticism over athletics decisions, an enrollment drop and a new house, among other issues.

“We are in a situation where there are a lot of things that are changing quickly. I was Margaret Spellings’ first hire as the (president) of this system,” Staton said. “She is no longer here. There are changes and that’s a part of life and we accept that and respect that and feel like this is the right time.”

Staton’s announcement generated immediate controversy.

Steven Long, a Raleigh attorney and member of the UNC Board of Governors, said Roper asked Staton to resign “in an effort to end the long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks by Harry Smith, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.”

The Board of Governors never discussed “any possible termination” of Staton, an action Long said that only the board could do.

Long said Roper was not authorized to take any action involving Staton.

“The Board of Governors has spent hours discussing where to put a statue at Chapel Hill and absolutely no time discussing whether the ECU chancellor should be asked to leave,” Long said.

Thomas Shanahan, UNC System general counsel, said Staton wasn’t terminated, he resigned. Shanahan added that the Board of Governors passed a resolution in January authorizing Roper to negotiate separation agreements with departing chancellors, which is what happened with Staton.

“President Roper acted entirely within his authority in doing so,” Shanahan said.

When asked if Roper asked him to resign, Staton said, “We’ll get into semantics here and it’s sort of difficult. Let me simply say I did not initiate this.”

Long disputed details about the January resolution, saying applied only to negotiation with UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt.

“It was the board’s understanding that was to authorize a separation agreement with Chancellor Folt, but no other chancellor,” Long said. “ECU was never mentioned.” Other board members have confirmed they also thought the resolution only involved Folt’s negotiations, Long said.

“In fact, the day prior, several board members had expressed to President Roper opposition to a proposal by him to allow the president to terminate any chancellor,” he said.

Long said Staton increased the enrollment of the ECU Honors College, launched a campaign to raise a $500 million for the university, launched an initiative to increase enrollment at the Brody School of Medicine by 50 percent over the next five years and is partnering with the computer data analytics firm, SAS, an initiative to improve rural living through health care, education, and economic development.

“All of that momentum has now been lost,” Long said. “Harry Smith has done damage to the University of North Carolina system, and particularly to East Carolina University. Until he is gone, Harry Smith will continue to do damage to our state's greatest asset.”

Smith described Long as a “very passionate members of the Board of Governors” who “tends to lead with a lot of emotions.”

“The way I always looked at that is Steve really, really cares, and I don’t take it personally at all,” Smith said. He added he didn’t think Long’s “expressions are healthy,” but he brings “a lot of value to the board of governors.”

Smith said he never once attacked Staton. The story that bad blood developed over a real estate deal “is a very false story and it was created in an attempt to harm me, (to keep) me from asking questions,” Smith said. No offer was ever made and no one was mad or angry about the project, he said.

“I think Cecil Staton put his heart into the job,” Smith said. “I think he got dealt some really tough dynamics. At the end of the day, I really appreciate the time, energy and dynamics that he gave.

“There are a lot of emotions in this stuff. I try to stay out of the emotions and the persona business and just focus on the facts, the data and the details,” Smith said. All he has ever done is look at all of UNC’s institutions.

“I look at enrollment trends, I look at acceptance rate trends, I look at fiscal health. From that perspective, all I’ve ever done is talk about is legitimate issues,” he said.

Staton said he believes ECU is showing very promising trends.

There was a downturn in enrollment during the current school year, he said. Applications for the 2019-2020 school year are down but the number of students placing deposits to actually enroll have increased, he said.

Staton said enrollment numbers may be down because this year will see one of the largest graduating cohorts in the school’s history.

“We have really worked hard at lifting the brand and the image of this university, not just here locally, where I think everyone has a generally good feeling and understanding of the role it serves, but we tried to do it across this state where I think some people don’t fully understand the role ECU plays,” Staton said. His administration worked to spread the university’s name nationally and internationally.

Staton referenced many of accomplishments Long cited in recounting his tenure.

The university also began a $500 million comprehensive campaign — the largest in its history — which has raised more than $213 million during the first two and a half years.

He also worked to secure $1 million to provide 1,000, $1,000 scholarships that will be awarded starting this fall.

The university also conducted numerous building projects, including $70 million in residence hall renovations, a $60 million Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Southside renovation, opening a new $37 million student center on the health sciences campus in 2017, opening a new $122 million student union on the main campus in January and preparing for the construction of a new $8 million innovation hub for the Miller School of Entrepreneurship and a $95 million life sciences building, due to be completed in 2021.

Staton said he’s also proud of the changes in the school’s athletics program.

“I am grateful that we have been able to press the reset button for Pirate athletics and prepare a foundation for future success,” he said. With the help of Dave Hart, who served as a special adviser, the school has a new athletic director, head men’s basketball coach, and head football coach.

“I am confident that ECU athletics are in a good place and that our best days are ahead,” Staton said.

“This is a great university and I will forever be proud that I was able to be part of it as the 11th chancellor of this university,” he said.

Whoever the next chancellor is, Staton said he would encourage them to listen to the students and to talk to faculty and staff. ECU is a complex organization with about 5,400 employees, 29,000 students and between 175,000-180,000 alumni, he said.

“Whoever is the next chancellor of this university will be a very fortunate individual. They’ll be coming to this university at an incredibly important time and a time of great promise,” he said. “Having been here for three years, I had only scratched the surface. I hope whoever is the next chancellor will be given time to get in here and figure it out and time to do the job they are called to do. I will be supporting them from the cheap seats.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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