When I walked into work Monday, I was greeted by identical emails — one from East Carolina University, one from the UNC System office — that let me know that Cecil Staton would be leaving the chancellor's job after commencement May 3.
By lunchtime, Staton was telling reporters that it wasn’t his idea to quit a $450,000-a-year job a few months before his third work anniversary.
By supper, the UNC Board of Governors was melting down, as one board member (Raleigh attorney Steve Long) publicly accused the UNC System’s interim leader (Bill Roper) of pushing out Staton to “to end the long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks” against the ECU chancellor by the BOG chair (ECU alum Harry Smith). You can read that blistering (a word I don’t use lightly) missive here.
Here’s more from Carolina Journal, which has been all over this story. WUNC radio has a short interview with Long, who said Smith’s barrage of texts and emails to former UNC System leader Margaret Spellings contributed mightily to her decision to quit and move back home to Texas.
Smith told Raleigh TV station WRAL that he has “never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil.” The chairman of ECU's board, meanwhile, said Smith is "not telling the truth" when he said he played no role in Staton's ouster. The chairman of ECU's foundation said Thursday that Staton "was bullied from the beginning."
Staton’s brief tenure in Greenville has been rocky, to say the least. Less than a week after he started his new job in mid-2016, Staton got headlines for blocking a student critic on Twitter. And less than a year after Staton extended the contract of an unpopular athletics director, Staton fired him. ECU also fired its football coach during Staton’s tenure, and the men’s basketball coach quit.
There's more. The decade-long saga of ECU’s chancellor’s house ended a year ago when the university’s foundation decided to pay $1.3 million for an 8,400 house with almost as many bedrooms (six) as garage spaces (five). (Smith said the mansion smacked of “aristrocracy.”) And then there was the anonymous 35-page Google Doc from 2018 that asked if Staton’s hiring was an act of “gross negligence.” Staton later called the document "nonsensical."
Maybe we should have seen this all coming: the search firm that produced Staton returned its $110,000 fee because of an apparent inaccuracies over what Staton was paid at previous jobs in Georgia.
Throughout all of this, Staton, a former Georgia state senator, managed to keep the support of his board of trustees. In January, 130 ECU supporters and prominent Greenville residents signed on to a letter defending Staton. But by the end, as N&O op-ed writer Ned Barnett concluded, "Staton wasn't ready for ECU, and ECU wasn't ready for Staton. That made for a bad fit that magnified every misstep."
A key to understanding some of this turmoil might be an awkward episode mentioned repeatedly in this week’s coverage. That’s the apartment deal unearthed last year by WRAL’s Travis Fain, a former N&R colleague. The short version is that Smith (who was on the BOG at the time) pitched an apartment project to Staton and ECU in 2016, and the university passed. Long, the BOG member, wrote in his letter this week that he believes the rejected deal is the fuel for Smith’s “irrational personal vendetta” against Staton.
Staton, meanwhile, will stay on the university payroll through June 30. By July 15, he’ll have collected nearly $600,000 in severance pay.
I’ve peeked in on the Board of Governors from time to time over the years, and I can’t recall a more chaotic time at 910 Raleigh Road. It started when the new Republican members of the BOG pushed out system president (and Democrat) Tom Ross in 2015, and it hasn’t let up. If anything, it has gotten more intense, as the chaos that was largely confined to the university and system office in Chapel Hill has spread to some of the other campuses.
Staton’s departure will leave the UNC System with four vacancies: the system presidency and the chancellorships at ECU, UNC-Chapel Hill and Western Carolina University. Everyone knows the details of the departures of Margaret Spellings, Carol Folt and Cecil Staton. But Western? That’s the search the BOG torpedoed last summer.
Like I said, chaos.
It looks like the WCU search is close to wrapping up. WCU is down to three finalists; a university spokesman said he expects Roper and the BOG to name a new chancellor in late April or early May. But the BOG still has to fill three high-profile jobs and find a permanent spot for a certain Confederate statue now presumably in storage somewhere at UNC-Chapel Hill. We’re in for a lot more turmoil, in other words, and not just in Greenville.
Update, 11:30 a.m. Friday: Former N&R colleague Joe Killian (now with N.C. Policy Watch) reports on Twitter from today's BOG meeting in Boone: "UNC Board of Governors member Steve Long is now apologizing to Chairman Harry Smith and the board for speaking out after the ECU chancellor's ouster. He said he should have come directly to Smith rather than speaking publicly on the matter in an 'intemperate' way." Killian also reports that several BOG members were going to try to censure Long.