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Chancellor addresses recent criticism, support

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ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton during an interview in January.

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 11, 2018

East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton said he appreciates the support offered in a recent resolution from ECU trustees to the UNC Board of Governors, while at the same time acknowledging the university faces tough challenges in its quest to be what he calls “America’s next great university.”

The chancellor during an interview on Wednesday gave his reaction to news about the trustees’ resolution and a critical email by Board of Governor’s Chairman Harry Smith that proceeded the trustee’s letter. The Daily Reflector spoke to Staton about the issue after an unrelated meeting on campus. He was out of town when news about the exchanges broke last week.

Staton said he understands the nature of his position is one that will attract public and private voices of discontent. He has a lot of expectations to fulfill, he said.

“These are tough jobs,” Staton said. “This is a complex organization with many constituencies, including 5,800 faculty and staff, 29,000 students and people in Greenville who have various expectations about the university. We are certainly incredibly important to the economy of Greenville and the eastern region. And you also have the Board of Governors.”

Staton shrugged off the negativity as a frustrating, but minor, distraction, saying he has bigger issues to consider.

“I will tell you, and it’s no surprise, you’ve got some people in this community — very few, I must say, that I’ve bumped into —  who believe that every problem in the world began on July 1, 2016, when I showed up,” Staton said. “In reality, a lot of the things we were dealing with were things I had nothing to do with one way or the other, including athletics. It’s very frustrating for me to be in a situation where I have to defend those kinds of things. But it goes with the territory.”

Smith took Staton to task in a July 15 email to N.C. House Reps. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, and John Bell, R-Craven, for an op-ed Staton wrote in the News & Observer. In the piece published July 14, Staton said that his institution was “handed the largest budget cut for any of the state’s public universities: $1.1 million, with no reasonable explanation.”

Smith told Murphy and Bell that he thought Staton’s comment was “completely inappropriate.”

“It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university,” Smith wrote in the email.

Speculation abounded ahead of the Board of Governors’ July 27 meeting that the board would seek Staton’s removal because of dissatisfaction over his handling of university matters including ongoing criticism of its athletics operations — Staton on Wednesday also confirmed he is seeking an independent audit in hopes of dispelling persistent complaints about athletics finances.

ECU trustees delivered their letter to the governing board July 25 expressing unanimous support for Staton.

Chairman Smith has clashed with trustees over private business deals related to ECU student housing that they viewed as conflicts of interest, negative opinions he has expressed related to the chancellor’s new residence and opinions he voiced publicly at their February meeting criticizing their approach to athletics and the university’s admissions policies.

Smith repeatedly has pledged fair treatment to ECU and said last week that there is no effort to oust Staton.

The UNC board never will “overrun the trustees” and would not fire Staton without direction from ECU and Spellings, Smith said, adding, “I know that rumor was flying … but that rumor never should’ve gotten any legs, and the world is full of rumors as you know.”

The chancellor said on Wednesday the trustees’ gesture of support demonstrates confidence in his leadership.

“I don’t believe there has been any significant discontent on the part of members of the Board of Trustees, if at all,” Staton said. “I don’t think it would have gotten to a letter of support signed by every board member if that were the case.” 

He said ECU has plenty of company among American public universities that are struggling to remain accessible to more students with dwindling funding from the state legislatures.

“These are tough times for public higher education, not just here but around the country,” he said. “There are powder kegs every day that you try to step over or keep from blowing up. It’s just part of the turf.”

Staton said his vision for the university has not changed.

“I am very grateful for the board’s support of me and the vision I brought to this university when I arrived,” Staton said. “Candidly, the vision I brought was what I thought I heard throughout the entire search process from the trustees, faculty, alumni and community members who were engaged in a very lengthy search process.

“I listened intently to what they were saying this institution needed going forward because I wanted to be sure it was something I could do and live with,” he said. “My work to try and lift this brand and have the university be recognized for what it is and has become — which I still don’t think is widely known — are what I’m attempting to focus on.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

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