After East Carolina chancellor’s ouster, a UNC Board of Governors on the brink

By: - March 20, 2019 2:43 pm

ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton (L) and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith (R).

When Cecil Staton announced his resignation as chancellor of East Carolina University this week, it had an air of inevitability, but not because of Staton’s performance since his hiring in 2016.

While the UNC System will not release the results of his last “360 job review,” two members of the UNC Board of Governors confirmed to Policy Watch it was a positive one. The members spoke on the condition that their identities remain confidential because they were discussing personnel information the system deems privileged.

(Staton has asked the system to release the review, but it has thus far declined to do so.)

It wasn’t because Staton didn’t have the support of his school’s Board of Trustees.

That board has repeatedly expressed its confidence in the chancellor, as did many former trustees and prominent members of the university community in a letter in January.

Staton was up against something more harrowing, it seems – conflict with Harry Smith, the powerful and combative chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

In a Monday press conference, the outgoing chancellor avoided questions about his conflict with the board, but confirmed that he did not initiate discussions about his resignation. Rather, he said, the suggestion was brought to him.

“There are some dreams that don’t get fulfilled, and there are some storms you cannot weather,” Staton said, paraphrasing a line from the musical “Les Miserables.”

Last year, that same political storm led to the resignation of Margaret Spellings, who hired Staton early in her tenure as UNC System President.

After repeated conflicts with Smith and the board, Carol Folt also resigned as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill in January.

With Staton the third UNC system leader to leave in the midst of power struggles and complaints of micromanaging from the Board of Governors, the board has itself erupted in turmoil and cross-accusations this week.

Board member Steve Long

Board member Steve Long, liaison to ECU, publicly accused Smith of lobbying for Staton’s removal and of prompting interim UNC President Bill Roper to broker Staton’s resignation. In a blistering public statement, Long said Smith has a “personal vendetta” against Staton that goes back to a foiled business deal, and has insulted him and his leadership ever since.

Smith did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but he denies he is behind Staton’s resignation. He told WRAL earlier this week that “everything in Steve’s letter is actually incorrect.”

“I’ve never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil,” said Smith.

That claim is undercut by an email Smith sent to state Reps. Greg Murphy (R-Pitt) and John Bell (R-Craven) in July of last year. In the email, Smith responds to a column Staton wrote for Raleigh’s News & Observer, in which he expressed disappointment in funding cuts to the school.

Calling Staton’s comments “completely inappropriate,” Smith – a political appointee of the General Assembly – apologized to the lawmakers for Staton’s “poorly written and thought out op-ed”  and denigrated Staton’s performance as chancellor at ECU.

“It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university,” Smith wrote. “Leaders take accountability and they don’t point the finger.”

“I’m happy to sit down with Cecil and discuss in great detail the many issues we have had under his leadership that he was in direct control over and has greatly hurt and divided ECU,” Smith wrote.

In an interview with Policy Watch this week, Long said that the sentiment expressed in the mail is reflective of the kind of negative assessment Smith shared with board members and UNC community members since even before he even became chairman. Since ascending to the leadership of the board in an uncontested election last year, Long said, Smith has justified many of the worries board members had about his temperament and tendency to let personal conflicts guide him.

“I think we were all very concerned,” Long said. “We didn’t know how he was going to turn out to be.”

Now, Long said, it’s clear.

“He needs to be replaced,” he said.

That would require a two-thirds majority vote of the board. Long said he hasn’t gauged the board on that specific question.

“I don’t think so at this point, but I don’t know,” Long said when asked if the votes to replace Smith were there.

The full Board meets Friday morning at Appalachian State University in Boone.

Three members of the board, speaking on the condition that their identities remain confidential in order to avoid reprisals from Smith, told Policy Watch this week that members are divided. Some oppose Smith while others are actively campaigning to formally censure Long for publicly denouncing the way in which Staton was approached to resign and for publicly criticizing Smith.

Political observers and national education experts said this week that the ongoing conflict on the Board of Governors and the repeated high-profile resignations are hurting the UNC system’s reputation.

“The stories coming out of North Carolina have garnered national attention,” said Thomas Harnisch, Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Thomas Harnisch

“People are seeing heavy turnover in key leadership spots,” Harnisch said. “That can lead to top talent not applying for those positions. Higher education is a community. People certainly talk to each other. All these transitions are piling up and taking a toll on the state’s reputation.”

The UNC system has long been the state’s “crown jewel,” Harnisch said. But the current UNC Board of Governors has normalized a strident partisanship that is troubling to most who work in higher education, he continued.

Appointed by a new Republican majority that took control of the General Assembly in 2010 elections, the board asserted its partisan agenda through the closing of academic centers and repeated quarrels with faculty, chancellors and boards of trustees. In recent years, it has clashed with faculty, staff and school leaders on everything from curriculum and free speech on campuses to Confederate monuments and faculty members criticizing state government.

The board has come to be dominated by conservative Republican members – most of them white men. It continues to get less diverse in racial, gender and political representation.

This week, House Republicans moved forward with a slate of appointments to the board that would remove Walter Davenport, a Black Democrat, who wished to continue serving. He would be replaced  by Terry Hutchens, a white Republican.

Joe Knott, a current member who has occasionally been at odds with Smith, will also not be reappointed in the latest round.

“North Carolina has gained a reputation where its Board of Governors is very political,” Harnisch said. “There’s a lot of instability emanating from that board. All of the stories about in-fighting on the board, firings and resignations over the last several years, top talent sees that and may decide they don’t want to be a part of it.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.