Politics & Government

ECU leader gets letter of support amid rumors of his possible departure

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.”

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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