Fetzer courts controversy again with new effort to shape ECU Board of Trustees

By: - April 23, 2020 5:30 am
UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer

Tom Fetzer had a problem — again.

It involved East Carolina University — again.

Fetzer, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, inserted himself into yet another leadership decision about the school last week, during a university governance committee meeting.

This time it was the question of Van Isley’s appointment to the ECU Board of Trustees. Fetzer sought to delay a vote, arguing the board should vet Isley more thoroughly than the average trustee candidate.

It was just the latest example of what board members say is a troubling pattern  — Fetzer repeatedly meddling in the vetting of trustee candidates and even chancellor candidates in ways that exceed his authority.

In interviews with Policy Watch this week, three members of the UNC Board of Governors and two members of the ECU Board of Trustees said they no longer believe Fetzer can be objective about leadership decisions at ECU, and he should recuse himself from issues related to the school.

Van Isley (Photo: Professional Builder Supply)

They point to a letter which came to light late last year that they say revealed Fetzer’s ambition to become ECU’s new chancellor himself.

Fetzer’s quibbling over Isley “felt like Groundhog Day,” said one UNC Board of Governors member who asked not to be named in order to describe internal board discussions.

“I was like, ‘Are we really living through this all over again?’” the member said.

Many in Greenville predicted smooth sailing when Isley, a Raleigh businessman, was nominated for the board of trustees. A prominent ECU alum, he was audit manager and director of marketing at Price Waterhouse before founding his own successful building supply company.

Though they now live in Raleigh, Isley and his wife Jennifer maintain strong connections to ECU. They donated $2 million to the school in 2017 for the creation of an “innovation hub” at the university’s College of Business, from which Isley earned a degree in accounting.

Isley was to replace Phil Lewis, one of two trustees who resigned in February after an ethics scandal in which they attempted to influence a student government election. Many on the board felt Isley was just the sort of ECU Pirate to move the troubled school past that episode, the latest in a series of controversies on the campus.

The board of governors followed its usual vetting process. Board member Jim Holmes, who nominated Isley, told the committee he had known him for more than 20 years.

Fetzer wasn’t satisfied.

“I don’t know Mr. Isley,” Fetzer said. “All I know about him is from two paragraphs. But all of us know the chaos and dysfunction of governance at East Carolina. In terms of governance it is our worst situation. We’ve had two chancellors leave in a calendar year, two board members who just resigned and another who is under an ethics investigation.”

Given all that, Fetzer said, the board should delay the vote on Isley and vet him further before thrusting “an unknown quantity” onto a volatile board of trustees.

Fellow Board of Governors member Thom Goolsby agreed. “With all the problems we’ve had I’d like to do more due diligence to understand where we are going here,” he said.

David Powers, chairman of the committee, rebutted Fetzer and Goolsby, saying he was concerned about the additional vetting; the arbitrary nature of these probes could change board’s appointment process.

Board member Pearl Burris-Floyd echoed that concern, asking if going beyond the current policy on how the board conducts appointments could even become a legal problem. “I just hope we are not creating a new precedent for how we deal with nominees to the boards of trustees of our universities,” said Burris-Floyd.

“I’d like to ask our attorney, ‘Are we going down a slippery slope if we add additional criteria to this process?’” Burris-Floyd said.

Powers said he had spoken with Isley about the fractious board of trustees at ECU and felt satisfied he could be neutral and put the school first.

Fetzer and Goolsby remained unconvinced, but Isley passed a committee vote and was unanimously approved by the full board of governors the next day.

But members of both the board of governors and ECU Board of Trustees say they worry opposition from Fetzer, given his track record, could mean he’ll independently investigate Isley and continue to try to influence the composition of the school’s governing board.

A problematic history

Fetzer obviously harbored an interest in being chosen as the next permanent chancellor at ECU, said three of his fellow board members, and has repeatedly attempted to play an outsized role there.

Last year, after the forced resignation of former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton, Dan Gerlach was named interim chancellor. Fetzer soon outlined an extensive plan he called “Operation Rescue ECU” and sent it to UNC System Interim President Bill Roper, former board chairman Harry Smith and board member Michael Williford. In the letter, Fetzer offered specific strategies for the university’s future. They included detailed fiscal and enrollment plans and a new marketing campaign he wanted to call “ECU Wants You.”

Fetzer went so far as to dictate a draft of the interim chancellor’s first public remarks which included describing Staton’s leadership as “two years of controversy and chaos” which needed to be replaced with “calm and stability.”

Fetzer also recommended waiting until after spring graduation when students left campus, to name a new chancellor to avoid “sympathy for Staton” — who was forced to resign without any publicly disclosed reason in March of last year.

Gerlach became popular and was well-liked among students, faculty and trustees in his time as interim chancellor and announced he would be a candidate for the permanent position.

That, several board members and ECU Board of Trustees members told Policy Watch, is why Fetzer seized on the controversy surrounding Gerlach’s drinking with students and allegations that he drove home intoxicated.

Fetzer became convinced he had to intervene in the official UNC investigation, one ECU trustee said, to be sure damaging information on Gerlach was not only uncovered by the investigation and brought to the board, but was quickly made public to quell sympathy and support for the man who might have been his rival in the chancellor search.

Peter Romary (Image: Twitter)

Fetzer employed Greenville attorney Peter Romary in an effort to secure damaging security camera video of Gerlach which was ultimately leaked to the media.

A report by the law firm hired to investigate the Gerlach affair found Fetzer and Romary did not fully cooperate with the official UNC investigation and instead ran their own rogue investigation which they concealed from the board.

“That letter about where he’s dictating what ECU should do like he’s already chancellor, that whole thing with Dan Gerlach, it should just disqualify him from any ECU matters,” said one member of the UNC Board of Governors in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “How can he be objective with a history of doing things like that?”

Members of the UNC Board of Governors were so incensed by Fetzer’s actions in the scandal that they mulled sanctions against him.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any member to operate outside of the board, regardless of whether it’s the chair of the board or whomever,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randall Ramsey told Policy Watch at the time.

“I believe we all have governance policies in place and we should follow those governance policies,” Ramsey said, adding there should be consequences for violating them. “We’re going to have serious discussions on that matter,”

Those discussions were ultimately held in closed session and, to date, the board has taken no official action against Fetzer.

Fetzer’s questionable history of involving himself in campus-level matters goes back further than last year’s troubles at ECU. As Policy Watch reported in 2018, the initial search for the current chancellor of Western Carolina University came apart when Fetzer circumvented the established search process and, some members said, overstepped his role.

After a final candidate was chosen from finalists by then-UNC President Margaret Spellings, Fetzer decided the candidate vetting had not been thorough enough.

He asked Romary’s company QVerity, which Fetzer described as “founded and staffed by former CIA personnel,” to further investigate the candidate, whose name was never revealed.

Fetzer then argued the candidate had misrepresented information when applying — a charge others on the board with knowledge of the candidate and their application disputed.

Fellow board members charged that Fetzer improperly interfered with the search process by giving the candidate’s name and information — which were supposed to remain confidential — to an outside group.

The candidate withdrew from consideration. The search process, which had already cost $100,000, was effectively scuttled at its final step.

Fetzer later admitted he had a conversation with UNC President Margaret Spellings about being appointed interim chancellor at Western Carolina himself.

Two former trustees at the school asked if they could put his name forward, Fetzer said, but in a telephone conversation with Spellings he was told she had already decided on an interim.

Fetzer denies he pursued the permanent chancellor’s position at Western Carolina, just as he later denied to Policy Watch he was pursuing the ECU chancellorship.

Two ECU trustees told Policy Watch this week they don’t believe that.

“He’s interested in it, if he can get it,” the trustee said. “And he’s not the only one.”

From the NCGA to ECU?

As Policy Watch reported in February, two members of the ECU Board of Trustees say North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) is pursuing the chancellorship at ECU.

Policy Watch agreed not to identify the trustees so they could discuss confidential conversations amongst board members and the confidential chancellor search process.

The trustees described conversations about Moore’s candidacy in which they directly participated. The conversations included debates about whether it would appear proper for one of the state’s most powerful elected officials — a person responsible for appointing members of both the Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors — to take a job on which those boards would ultimately vote.

House Speaker Tim Moore addresses the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce Tuesday by video conference.

Earlier this week, Moore spoke via video conference to a virtual luncheon held by the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce. The event was scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moore did not address any interest in the chancellorship during the event, though he praised the school’s Brody School of Medicine and talked about making funding for COVID-19 research available to it along with other UNC system medical schools.

Joseph Kyzer, Moore’s communications director, told Policy Watch in an email that Moore is seeking re-election to the state House in 2020, and “plans to run for another term as Speaker if elected, and is focused on serving higher education students and campuses through his position in the General Assembly.”

Kyzer did not respond to a follow-up question asking whether Moore’s run for re-election would preclude him from also seeking the chancellorship at ECU.
Moore previously denied the rumors that he was seeking the UNC system presidency, though his denials became less emphatic as those rumors intensified.

Members of the UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch that there is enough resistance to the idea that it is doubtful Moore could be appointed to that position.

The open chancellorship at ECU would be more attainable, they said.

Both the UNC System President and ECU Chancellor searches have been delayed as a result of the pandemic.

Fetzer’s attempt to prevent Isley from joining the board is related to the chancellor search, one ECU trustee told Policy Watch this week. The first part of that search will be conducted by the school’s trustees.

“I think Fetzer and some other people too are going to try to do everything they can to influence who is on this board,” the trustee said. “They know that who is on this board is going to have a lot of weight as to the decision on the next chancellor.”

“It should not be about politics and influence,” the trustee said. “We should choose the best chancellor for this University period and nobody who wants that position should be involved in who makes that choice and how it is done.”

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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.