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Gerlach: ECU offer surprising but challenge is exciting

041819gerlachinterview

ECU's incoming interim chancellor Dan Gerlach, center, talks with Board of Trustees members Max Ray Joyner Jr., right, and Jason Poole after his appointment was announced Tuesday, April 16, 2019.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, April 18, 2019

ECU’S newly appointed interim chancellor said he anticipates being in that role for “a couple of years.”

Dan Gerlach, who led the Golden LEAF Foundation for a decade, also said the dissent that has arisen from his appointment is no different than other controversies that have followed him during his career.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper announced Gerlach’s appointment to East Carolina University’s top post on Tuesday, saying he is an advocate for higher education who knows how to make thoughtful and tough decisions.

Gerlach said he anticipates being held for several years because that’s the time needed to address issues involving ECU’s dropping enrollment and financial stability.

“I think there's a lot of work to do in a complex organization and it’s going to take some time to do that,” Gerlach said. “If I was coming here for three months then going back to Golden LEAF then you couldn’t get anything done because no change could have occurred.”

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Gerlach moved to North Carolina in 1995 when he joined the N.C. Budget & Tax Center as its director. He worked there until 2001. He joined Gov. Mike Easley’s administration is 2002, serving as a senior adviser for fiscal affairs until 2008, when he joined the foundation.

Gerlach was appointed to the UNC System Presidential transition committee for Roper earlier this year. He said he was first approached about stepping into ECU’s top spot shortly after outgoing Chancellor Cecil Staton announced he was stepping down. Roper formally offered him the job a week ago.

“When it was first discussed, I remember I was surprised,” Gerlach said. He knew he was up for the challenge when he was told, “the east has needs to be met, you understand the needs the east demands from the university.”

It likely will be later this year before discussions about starting the search for a permanent chancellor will begin, because when ECU’s Board of Trustees meets in July, it will have six new members.

“We expect that Mr. Gerlach and the Board of Trustees will focus their attention over the next several months on the day-to-day operations of ECU. We have a new class of students arriving in the fall, and much to accomplish before then,” said Jason Tyson, UNC System spokesman. “President Roper will, in due course, begin talking with the Board of Trustees about plans for conducting a search for a new chancellor. Once started, the search for a chancellor typically takes eight to 12 months.”

Hours before Gerlach’s appointment was formally announced, a dossier was circulated that referred to his involvement in an effort to secure a job at NC State University for Easley’s wife, Mary. The situation resulted in the resignation of the university’s chancellor, James Oblinger, and Mary Easley’s termination.

The document also included links to articles that claimed Gerlach’s appointment to the Golden LEAF Foundation didn’t follow the organization’s hiring practices and was a result of pressure from Easley and then Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

Gerlach said controversy has followed him since he joined Easley’s administration, with individuals at that time saying he was not sufficiently pro business.

“I think we solved a lot of tough budget problems and moved things forward. Did we do things perfectly? No,” he said. Gerlach went on to say that along with accusations that he was a political hire, people said he didn’t know enough about rural North Carolina to effectively lead the foundation.

“Ten years later, after 1,100 grants, $550 million in various grants awarded, bringing down administrative costs, building the endowment and building trust and momentum, I leave Golden LEAF, I think, in a very strong position,” he said.

Gerlach said he expected people to question his selection.

“I think there are an incredible number of people who are passionate about this university and that passion shows itself in many ways,” he said. “They want to make sure they have the absolute right person.”

Gerlach said he doesn’t know who would be able to install confidence among all factions of Pirate Nation and solve all problems.

“If that person existed, I think Bill Roper would have chosen that person,” he said.

Gerlach pointed out the issues described in the dossier are about a decade old and if Gov. Roy Cooper or the General Assembly had concerns they wouldn’t have tasked the foundation with the management and disbursement of privately raised hurricane recovery funds.

Gerlach said he overcame doubters by working with people to find solutions of issues facing eastern North Carolina.

There will always be criticism, he said, but, “It doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to move forward.”

Gerlach is started his new path by meeting with the university’s vice chancellors to discuss their priorities and issues they say needed immediate attention. He also plans to meet with the university’s faculty senate, the leadership that represents the professors and instructors.

He worked as an instructor at NC State and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill years ago and contemplated returning to teaching before accepting the post at the foundation.

Outgoing Chancellor Cecil Staton, who officially steps down on May 3, said he would remain with the university through June 30 to aid in the transition. Gerlach said he’s grateful for Staton’s service but believes the sooner he begins the day-to-day work of the office the better for everybody.

Gerlach said some may question his effectiveness as a university leader because he does not come from the traditional academic background.

He wants faculty to know they are appreciated and have a role in shared governance and carrying out the university’s mission of building, the knowledge, talent and skills of students. Gerlach said neither he nor the vice chancellors or other administrators to do that.

“It’s the faculty who is the core of the operation,” he said.

The university’s academic programs are strong, Gerlach said.

“That is not what needs to be dealt with,” he said. “What needs to be dealt with is to bring us together and explain the value of East Carolina University.”.

Getting the message out about the university’s value is one of the ways Gerlach will work to solve ECU’s dropping enrollment. He also wants to expand on existing efforts to make it easier for community college graduates to transfer to ECU and look at better ways of recruiting individuals leaving military service.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Gerlach said he anticipated being in the interim chancellor’s position for several years. He said a couple of years in Wednesday’s interview.

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

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