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Disappointment surrounds Staton's resignation announcement

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Scott Shook

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Members of Greenville’s business community were disappointed but not surprised by ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton’s resignation announcement.

Individuals interviewed at Tuesday’s Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce Power Luncheon said rumors surrounding Staton’s departure have swirled around the community and state for months. Most said they regret his pending move, saying he was not given enough time to implement his vision for revitalizing eastern North Carolina and growing the university.

“His vision about the next national university, honestly I was puzzled why people scoffed at that,” said Scott Shook, a Greenville financial advisor and chairman of the N.C. Community College System Board of Directors. “In the community college system we studied the demographics of the state and we understand that the 18 to 24 population set in the rural areas of the state are in a decline and you can see that coming 20 years down the line. That’s something that is knowable, that’s a freight train coming at us.”

East Carolina University’s mission is to focus on service and growth in eastern North Carolina, Shook said, but it also has to look to the state’s urban areas and outside North Carolina to recruit students because national schools like the University of Alabama and others have recruiting offices in the state.

“It’s a competitive landscape nationally so we had better be a national brand and a national university to keep East Carolina going,” Shook said. “You think we’ve seen (declining) enrollment now, you wait 10 years from now.”

John Chaffee, president and CEO of the regional economic development agency NCEast Alliance, said his organization saw a lot of positives coming from the university during Staton’s tenure, which began in 2016.

“There was a renewed commitment to regional engagement that we think is extremely important for this region,” Chaffee said.

There were were activities being led by the vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement, he said. Faculty and administrators were exploring how to promote value added agriculture and studies in the automotive sector.

Academics were engaging with communities to work on solving problems, Chaffee said, and they were working with the Alliance on economic development initiatives. The university also was working with employers in region to think about projects to help those industries.

One way the university was working in the region involved having seniors working with local employers, mainly in the manufacturing sector, to help them solve problems to improve their processes, Chaffee said. At this time the program mainly involves engineering students but other departments are exploring how they can offer similar services.

“I think the chancellor has done a really nice job for us and it is disappointing to me, as an individual, with the interactions that have caused him to leave us,” said Leo Corbin, who retired last month as the chamber’s president. He said his comments reflect his own views and not those of the chamber.

“It’s not anything that he has done or the (ECU) Board of Trustees. It seems to be a couple of individuals from the (UNC) Board of Governors and it’s very disappointing,” Cobin said.

Corbin said Staton did a great job working through a difficult time with ECU athletics, a sentiment echoed by others. Several people said the turmoil surrounding the university’s athletics program condemned Staton from the beginning.

“I think a lot of what happened was a reaction to what happened last year with the athletics department but he’s not an athletics leader, he’s the chancellor,” said Minnie Johnson Anderson, a retired educator and member of Greenville Utilities Board of Commissioners. Anderson said it appears after UNC System President Margaret Spellings left last year, individuals “who reacted negatively to him” were in a position to act on their feelings.

“I have a concern about that,” Anderson said.

Staton’s critics should have given him more time to work on his initiatives, she said.

“I just feel he came in at a tough time. Whether you like it or not athletics is a big part of our community and we had a struggle at that time,” said businessman Denny Donaldson. “There were some in-crowds and stuff like that. I think he was a good man; kind, thoughtful, but I think it was just a tough time.”

Now the leadership of ECU and the UNC System have to move forward.

The leadership must move to quickly appoint an interim chancellor and the permanent chancellor, Chaffee said.

However, “certain individuals or groups need to stay in their lane,” he said. He did not identify to whom he was referring. However supporters of the chancellor have raised concerns about meddling by UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith.

“As they chose new leadership, people in the community needs to be involved in that. All aspects,” Shook said. That includes hearing from the university and its constituent groups — faculty, the Board of Visitors and others — and community organizations such as the chamber of commerce. All need to have a role, he said.

Anderson said she wants the university’s leadership to continue working on projects that will benefit all departments in the university, such as the $500 million capital campaign, so the school can thrive and move forward.

“I want people to look at ECU and want to come,” Anderson said. “We don’t want people to feel the confusion we are having, we want the next chancellor to come and thrive.”

“It seems like we are in a real crossroads here in the east so my hope is that whoever the next person is (they are) on the order of a Leo Jenkins,” said Donaldson. Jenkins was the sixth president and chancellor who took East Carolina from college to university statue. He also successfully lobbied for the creation of the Brody School of Medicine.

“We need that lion of the East again,” Donaldson said. He does not know who that individual might be.

“I hope there is somebody who is a lot smarter than me who knows a lot of the players who are out there and can come in a make a real impact,” he said.

Shook said he hopes the university can find the leadership it needs.

“I think it is going to be increasingly challenging to bring in leadership in the state,” Shook said. “Under the current leadership that we have making decisions, I hope they are able to pull in someone the caliber we deserve at ECU.

“I think every Pirate should be hopeful for that.” Shook paused. “I am hopeful for that.”

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

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