Staton had good intentions, but he didn’t fit at ECU

Cecil Staton’s resignation as the chancellor of East Carolina University became official Monday, but the poor fellow had been leaving virtually from the time he arrived three years ago.

Rarely has a chancellor seemed more miserable. Appropriately, at a news conference announcing he’s quitting his post, he referred to a song from the musical “Les Miserables.” He said, “It’s tough to reach these decisions, but in the words of that song, there are some dreams that don’t get fulfilled and there are some storms you cannot weather.”

Storms are hazardous in any executive position, but they are especially so when you’re at the helm of a Pirate ship. Staton got himself in immediate and irredeemable trouble by telling ECU Pirates fans to stop complaining about the football’s team’s poor performance. His motives were good. Staton has advanced degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and a minister’s instinct to preach forgiveness for a coach’s or an athletic director’s miscalculations.

But Pirate fans who are intent on beating NC State and UNC-CH aren’t inspired by calls to turn the other cheek. They’d rather turn the page on coaches and ADs until they get to a winning chapter.

Staton wasn’t ready for ECU, and ECU wasn’t ready for him. That made for a bad fit that magnified every misstep.

A 35-page document was posted to the ECU Football Facebook page in January of 2018 that examined Staton’s past as a Georgia state senator and his problems at ECU. Its headline: “Was the hire of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton an act of gross negligence?”

Staton came by The News & Observer a year ago in full job rescue mode. In addition to the football flap, there was unhappiness with his decision to give up on renovations to the historic chancellor’s house next to campus on Fifth Street in Greenville. Instead, he moved into a six-bedroom home with a swimming pool three miles from campus.

Staton said the estimated $3.5 million renovation needed for the historic home would be too expensive and the rowdy campus setting wasn’t right for receptions and general peace and quiet. “A lot of fraternity houses are just around it,” he said. “They can sit on the balconies of their fraternities and look in your backyard.”

Ultimately, the decision to move was made by the ECU Board of Trustees, and the new home was bought by the ECU Foundation for $1.5 million. Staton said he tried to stay out of the house switch, but he should have stayed in the middle of it and said no. You can’t regard your students as undesirable neighbors. He should have gone over and had a beer with them.

Despite his background as a legislator, Staton wasn’t a deft politician. He kept saying things he thought were inspiring that came off as grandiose and condescending.

“This sleepy little school in Eastern North Carolina is not going to be a sleepy little school anymore,” he told a meeting of editors and reporters at The News & Observer. “We’re going to become America’s next great national university.”

ECU can be great at a lot of things - even, it has shown, football. But its ambition should be to serve eastern North Carolina, not to be Harvard on the Coastal Plain.

But the final meaning of Staton’s short and stormy tenure isn’t about him, but the process that selected him. The UNC president and Board of Governors ought to give up on secret chancellor searches. Let a university’s students, faculty and alumni see those under consideration and let their objections surface before — not after — a chancellor is named.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun