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ECU trustee says information is withheld from members

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Mark Copeland

Mark Copeland

By Michael Abramowitz
For The Daily Reflector

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A member of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees is raising concerns that information crucial to the board’s decision-making is being withheld from some of its members.

Mark Copeland, a 1996 graduate of the university and a managing partner with national accounting firm Ernst and Young in Dallas, Texas, asked The Daily Reflector this week to publish a prepared statement expressing his concerns.

“I personally feel that critical information is not being shared with all members of the ECU Board of Trustees,” Copeland said in the statement released to the paper on Tuesday. “While the nature of such information cannot be publicly discussed, it is my belief that full disclosure (within the board) of this information would allow each of our 13 sworn members to make more informed decisions that impact the strategic direction of ECU.” 

The Reflector asked Copeland to describe the scope and timing of the problem he presented, but would not offer details publicly beyond his statement, saying he was obliged to protect board confidentiality. He said he expected more information to be forthcoming. Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan did not respond to several requests for comment.

The statement, provided exclusively to The Reflector, comes as questions linger about leadership at East Carolina. Also on Tuesday, a day after ECU officially opened a $130 million student center, a group of 130 prominent supporters of the university wrote a letter to UNC system leaders asking for an end to unfair criticism of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton.

No trustees signed the letter. Copeland emphasized he was issuing the statement independently and out of great concern that all trustees be included in the decision-making process.

Diversity of backgrounds, skills and perspectives that board members bring to their service to the university is an important factor in the state governing board’s member selection, Copeland said. Beyond that, complete access to information is a crucial component in members’ ability to help ECU move forward, he said.

“When all of the trustees are working with the same baseline information and the same set of facts, it allows for a healthier dialogue and communication,” he said. “Having a healthy level of conflict in the room is a good thing, and I think it’s OK if we all don’t always agree; that healthy kind of conflict is very natural. But you don’t benefit from our differences if we’re not all working from the same information and database. We might come to different conclusions (on issues that come to the board) if we’re all working with the same available information.”

Copeland also stressed the importance of the board and its members developing stronger and healthier relationships with partners and stakeholders at the regional and state level — including the 28-member UNC Board of Governors and its chairman, Harry Smith — if it is to successfully meet the challenges facing its mission.

Relations between Smith, an ECU alum, and several ECU board members and supporters have been strained since he took the UNC System helm last year. 

Smith had criticized Staton in a July 2018 email to N.C. House Reps. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, and John Bell, R-Craven, for what he thought was an “inappropriate” 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 has clashed with some ECU trustees over his private business deals related to ECU student housing that were viewed as conflicts of interest; negative opinions he has expressed related to the chancellor’s new $1.3 million residence; and opinions he voiced publicly at their February meeting criticizing their approach to athletics and the university’s admissions policies.

In a November email to Shanahan, Smith said he would be cutting communication ties with the ECU trustees and avoid a presence on the Greenville campus. He has since reversed himself and reestablished communications with several ECU trustees, including Copeland, who reached out to meet him in December. Smith also accepted a university invitation to visit the campus Monday for the student center dedication.

Copeland said in his statement he supported Smith’s re-involvement with the ECU trustees as necessary and positive.

“ECU is fortunate to have a graduate serving as the chairman of the BOG,” he said. “The letter submitted by Chairman Smith regarding his intent to step away from ECU did not feel like a positive outcome for our students, faculty and staff, alumni or the citizens of Eastern North Carolina. When you think about what ECU means to the entire 29-county eastern region, it goes beyond the individuals here. The ultimate success of ECU is greater than any single individual, with the greatest outcome being achieved with everyone working as a collective team to ensure long-term success for all of the stakeholders.”

Copeland pointed to the new student center as evidence of the need for the university to maintain close ties with the BOG, including Smith, and with the state Legislature.

“That center would not be possible without the full support of the Board of Governors and North Carolina General Assembly,” he said. “It was exciting to hear Chairman Smith comment about the $400-million in investment made by the State of North Carolina at ECU since 2014. This level of investment is greatly needed as we look to the future at ECU. The only path to achieve this possibility will be through a positive working relationship with all of our stakeholders.”

Copeland underscored his belief in the good intentions of his fellow ECU trustees.

“All 13 members deeply care about East Carolina University and want to ensure a solid foundation for our 29,000 students, 5,800 faculty members and staff and our 165,000 living alumni,” he said.

Copeland is a native of Elizabeth City and was raised in Durham. He also owns a home in Bath. He graduated from ECU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. He also has served on the ECU Board of Visitors, the ECU Foundation Board of Directors and the College of Business Advisory Council.

Michael Abramowitz, who retired from The Daily Reflector last year, is now a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at 252-714-0301.