ECU leader wins sup­port amid ru­mors of pos­si­ble de­par­ture

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Triangle & N.C. - BY JANE STAN­CILL js­tan­[email protected]­sob­server.com

Dozens of East Carolina Univer­sity back­ers have signed a let­ter in sup­port of Chan­cel­lor Ce­cil Staton, call­ing on UNC sys­tem lead­ers to re­lease his re­cent per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion as proof that he’s do­ing a good job at the cam­pus in Greenville.

The let­ter, with 128 sig­na­to­ries, was sent Tues­day to UNC Pres­i­dent Mar­garet Spellings and in­com­ing in­terim UNC pres­i­dent, Dr. Bill Roper, as well as to the UNC Board of Gov­er­nors and the ECU Board of Trustees. It comes just be­fore an ECU trustee re­treat next week, the de­par­ture of Spellings and the ar­rival of Roper as the new pres­i­dent of the UNC sys­tem.

Staton has been un­fairly tar­geted, the let­ter said, and blamed for prob­lems in ath­let­ics that pre­dated him.

“We are con­cerned that Dr. Staton has been un­der a cloud since his hir­ing with un­fair ac­cu­sa­tions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions which have been a con­tin­ued dis­trac­tion and hin­dered his abil­ity to lead,” said the let­ter. Sign­ers in­cluded the mayor of Greenville, for­mer trustees and Board of Gov­er­nors mem­bers, ECU foun­da­tion mem­bers, Pi­rate Club of­fi­cials, prom­i­nent alumni and the CEO of Vi­dant Health.

The let­ter says the “harass­ment,” “friv­o­lous charges,” and “con­tin­ued threats” against Staton are hurt­ing the univer­sity.

“It seems be­neath this great in­sti­tu­tion for this to con­tinue,” said the let­ter. “It is time for this shame­ful episode in our univer­sity’s his­tory to come to an an end and for our Chan­cel­lor, Dr. Ce­cil Staton, to be sup­ported and given ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to lead our univer­sity to great­ness.”

The sign­ers go on with an un­usual re­quest – with Staton’s per­mis­sion, they want to see his re­cently com­pleted eval­u­a­tion.

“It is con­fus­ing that a doc­u­ment de­signed and paid for by the univer­sity would not be avail­able to those of us in­vested in the univer­sity,” the let­ter said. “Many of us gave our time to be in­ter­viewed for the doc­u­ment and find it in­sult­ing that this doc­u­ment has been hid­den from view since its pub­lish­ing.”

So far, UNC sys­tem of­fi­cials have de­clined to re­lease the eval­u­a­tion.

‘EX­TREMELY GRATE­FUL’

Staton is­sued a state­ment Wed­nes­day thank­ing his sup­port­ers.

“I am ex­tremely grate­ful for the sup­port ex­pressed in the let­ter and the en­cour­age­ment I con­tinue to re­ceive from so many long­time lead­ers in Greenville and east­ern North Carolina,” said Staton in an emailed state­ment.

“These are peo­ple who know ECU well and re­spect and value the work we’re do­ing at this univer­sity,” Staton added. “It’s grat­i­fy­ing to see that they felt strongly about

shar­ing the thoughts pub­licly that so many have ex­pressed to me pri­vately. I’m hon­ored to know them and to work ev­ery day with out­stand­ing fac­ulty, staff, stu­dents and alumni who share high ex­pec­ta­tions and are fully com­mit­ted to achiev­ing them.”

The let­ter may have been prompted by ru­mors that Staton would step down this month. A story pub­lished in the Carolina Jour­nal in Novem­ber said Staton had asked for a siz­able sev­er­ance pack­age and would re­sign by New Year’s Day.

UNC sys­tem and ECU of­fi­cials dis­puted the re­port. At the time, ECU Trustee Chair­man Kieran Shana­han told The News & Ob­server that his board, the com­mu­nity and ECU fac­ulty and staff were pleased with Staton.

Carolina Jour­nal also re­ported on Tues­day’s let­ter and said it stood by its orig­i­nal story re­gard­ing the im­pend­ing res­ig­na­tion.

Since Staton ar­rived at ECU in 2016, he has been faulted by Pi­rate fans an­gry about los­ing sea­sons, and sports ra­dio shows have seized on Staton’s lead­er­ship. He has also been crit­i­cized for the ECU foun­da­tion’s pur­chase of a $1.3 mil­lion chan­cel­lor’s house, a new brand­ing cam­paign and his stated na­tional as­pi­ra­tions for the univer­sity. An anony­mous on­line dossier ques­tioned the hir­ing of the for­mer Repub­li­can state se­na­tor from Ge­or­gia, call­ing it “gross neg­li­gence.”

Staton has re­cently made sig­nif­i­cant changes in ath­let­ics.

Last year, the un­pop­u­lar ath­letic di­rec­tor, Jeff Com­pher, de­parted after a $1.26 mil­lion buy­out, not long after his con­tract had been ex­tended un­der Staton’s watch, and the foot­ball coach, Scot­tie Mont­gomery, was fired. Ath­let­ics ad­viser Dave Hart, brought in by Staton, then sought out re­place­ments that re­sulted in the hires of ath­letic di­rec­tor Jon Gil­bert from South­ern Miss and foot­ball coach Mike Hous­ton, who posted a win­ning record at James Madi­son Univer­sity.

But ECU’s ath­let­ics bud­get is in the red, and it re­mains to be seen whether fans will fill the seats at a the ex­panded foot­ball sta­dium. Tues­day’s let­ter said it was pre­ma­ture to judge Staton on ath­let­ics.

“We feel his re­cent hir­ings prove he has han­dled ath­let­ics as well as pos­si­ble con­sid­er­ing the mount­ing prob­lems of the last few years,” the let­ter from Staton sup­port­ers said.

‘A CIR­CUS’

Some do not agree with the let­ter sign­ers. One fre­quent critic, ECU alum­nus Dr. John Bream, posted an on­line re­but­tal to the sup­port­ers, writ­ing to re­porters, “I have read the let­ter, and I am ap­palled at the lack of fac­tual sup­port pro­vided to sup­port its con­clu­sion.”

Harry Smith, chair­man of the UNC Board of Gov­er­nors, has been a critic of Staton in the past. On Wed­nes­day, he wrote to Spellings, Staton and trustee lead­ers, call­ing the whole thing “a cir­cus.”

“I can’t imag­ine why any­one would think the sup­port let­ter was a good idea es­pe­cially in the con­text and tone it was writ­ten,” he said in an email, adding, “ECU is again be­ing di­vided.”

In an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day, Smith said such di­vi­sions are dis­ap­point­ing and sug­gested ev­ery­one “al­low a proper, healthy gover­nance process to work and be re­spect­ful of the peo­ple that have been en­trusted in those po­si­tions to do what’s right.”

Smith said he sup­ports all chan­cel­lors as long as they have the back­ing of their trustee boards and the UNC pres­i­dent.

“In my opin­ion, there has been no mis­treat­ment [of Staton] in any way, shape, form or fash­ion,” Smith said, adding, “gover­nance is about ask­ing tough ques­tions . ... There’s never been any per­sonal at­tacks, ever.”

Last year, Smith, an ECU grad­u­ate, pledged to step away from ECU cam­pus mat­ters, but has since had a change of heart. He at­tended a rib­bon cut­ting this week of the new stu­dent cen­ter on the Greenville cam­pus.

“I am a proud mem­ber of Pi­rate Na­tion, and I want to be as help­ful to the in­sti­tu­tion wher­ever and when­ever pos­si­ble,” Smith said in a state­ment Tues­day.

“It has been an un­for­tu­nate past few months for ECU – where a small few have uti­lized a false nar­ra­tive to cre­ate divi­sion among those who most want to help the Univer­sity thrive,” Smith added. “This isn’t my ap­proach.” Jane Stan­cill: 919-829-4559, @janes­tancill

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