UNC Board of Governors member: ECU chancellor pushed out in “personal vendetta”

UNC Board of Governors member Steve Long

On Monday Dr. Cecil Staton announced he would step down as East Carolina University’s chancellor.

After long tensions with UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, the move seemed inevitable to some following politics on the UNC Board of Governors and at ECU.

UNC Board of Governors member Steven Long, who acts as the board’s liaison to ECU, released a blistering public statement on Staton’s departure Monday (reprinted below in full).

Staton was forced out by Smith in a deal brokered by UNC Interim President Bill Roper, Long said in the statement. The move, Long said in an interview with Policy Watch Monday, was motivated by a “personal vendetta” by Smith over a real estate deal and Smith’s desire to micro-manage the school, its chancellor and Board of Trustees.

“Most of the people on the board are ready to talk about policy, they care about the university, they want to see it move forward,” Long said Monday. “They’re not interested in these petty disputes. They don’t want to undermine chancellors. They want to support them. They’re not interested in getting involved in the management of the universities. Harry’s not like that.”

“Harry treats this like a full time job,” Long said. “He gets very involved – far too much, I think. And he has these vendettas he pursues.”

Tensions with the board – and with Smith specifically – played a part in the departures of UNC System President Margaret Spellings last year and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt earlier this year. The constant conflicts have led to concern UNC will have trouble attracting good candidates for leadership of universities in the system – and that new leaders will be able to do their jobs effectively.

Long said there is “general concern about Harry” on the board – which has been the case since he became chairman last summer after an uncontested election.

“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.

Long sent his written statement on Staton’s resignation Monday morning he said.

Asked if he had gotten a response, he said he had.

“Suffice it to say, he is not in agreement,” Long said.

Policy Watch reached out to Smith for comment. He has not yet responded.

Long said there had been no discussion of replacing Staton by the Board of Governors. Roper acted without the knowledge or authority of the board in negotiating Staton’s departure, Long said.

““The UNC Board of Governors has never met to discuss any possible termination of Chancellor Staton,” Long wrote.  “Despite that and the Board’s clear policy granting only the Board of Governors authority to terminate a Chancellor (UNC Policy Manual 300.1.1), Dr. Roper took the highly unusual step of negotiating and reaching a termination agreement with Chancellor Staton without consulting or even providing prior notice to the UNC Board of Governors.”

” He acted unilaterally and was not authorized by the Board of Governors to take any action regarding Chancellor Staton,” Long wrote. “The Board of Governors has spent hours discussing where to put a statue at Chapel Hill and absolutely no time discussing whether the ECU Chancellor should be asked to leave.”

Thomas Shanahan, UNC System General Counsel, responded to that part of Long’s public statement.

“This was not a termination,” Shanahan wrote in a response statement Monday. “This is a resignation by Chancellor Staton. The policy provision that Steve (Gov. Long) references would apply only if the Board or the president were pursuing the involuntary separation of the chancellor.”

“In addition, the Board of Governors, at its last meeting, passed a resolution authorizing the president to enter into separation agreements with departing chancellors, which is the case here,” Shanahan wrote. “President Roper acted entirely within his authority in doing so.”

Long’s public statement: Read more


Elon Poll gives insight into 2020 Presidential election

A new Elon University poll gives a first-look at views of North Carolina voters as the 2020 presidential election takes form.

In the poll, released Thusday, just thirty-six percent of voters surveyed said they would vote for President Donald Trump if the election were held today. Forty-eight percent of those polled said they would vote for the Democratic candidate.

Who that Democrat may be is another question.

The poll, conducted between Feb. 20 and March 7, asked the state’s voters about 12 people who have declared they are running for the Democratic nomination or are expected to do so.

The poll found former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders had the strongest recognition among North Carolina voters. Biden was the candidate who made the strongest positive impression among voters, with 55 percent. Forty-four percent of those polled said they had a strong positive impression of Sanders.

Forty-eight percent of those polled said they would vote for the Democratic candidate while 36 percent say they would support Trump. Forty-three percent aid they think the Democratic candidate is likely to win while 36 percent said they expect the president will be re-elected.

“Consistent with many others polls, we find President Trump maintains strong loyalty among registered Republicans in North Carolina,” said Jason Husser, poll director and associate professor of political science at Elon University, in a statement on the poll. “However, unaffiliated voters are currently breaking toward a hypothetical Democratic candidate by a margin that could portend serious trouble for the president’s 2020 coalition.”

“That said, I expect many of those voters will change their minds as the Democratic nominee moves from hypothetical to actual,” Husser said. “The extent of this change will largely shape what we see in North Carolina over the next 20 months.”

Read the full results – and information about methodology – here.


Confederate monument removed in Winston-Salem

The Confederate monument in downtown Winston-Salem was removed today after decades of controversy, years of negotiation and months of legal maneuvering.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this year, the statue stood on private property – an apartment building that was once the county courthouse. Since it wasn’t on city or state owned land, it wasn’t covered by a 2015 state law that’s prevented the removal of such monuments in downtown Raleigh and at UNC-Chapel Hill. The city and the owners of the property

Mayor Allen Joines proposed moving the statue to nearby Salem Cemetery, which is home to 36 Confederate graves. That’s where it will go after a few months in storage, during which the site will be prepared.

For more on the statue’s removal, read this story from the News & Record in Greensboro and watch video of its removal from its sister paper, the Winston-Salem Journal.



State employees file lawsuit over transgender discrimination

Current and former state employees filed a federal lawsuit Monday over discrimination against transgender people in the state employee health plan.

Connor Thonen-Fleck, 16, flanked by his parents Alexis Thonen and Jason Fleck at Monday’s press conference.

The suit, filed by Lambda Legal and the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, stems from a blanket exclusion of coverage for treatment of gender dysphoria, a condition recognized by both the medical community and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina, which administers the state employee health care plan.

“We know across this nation courts are affirming the rights of transgender people to exist, to live authentically and to be treated equally and free from discrimination in all areas of life, including employment and healthcare,” said Taylor Brown, staff attorney with Lambda Legal, at a press conference outside the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Durham.

“Moreover, these exact exclusions are being struck down in state Medicaid programs, state employee health programs and private insurance programs by state and federal courts across the country,” Brown said.

The suit alleges the exclusion violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act.

As Policy Watch reported last year, the board of trustees of the state health care plan voted to begin covering treatments for gender dysphoria at the end of 2016, near the end of Janet Cowell’s term as State Treasurer. The move was necessary to comply with the Affordable Care Act. When Dale Folwell came into office in 2017, he made it clear he opposed the move, calling transition-related care elective and unnecessary.

The plan’s trustees allowed the coverage to expire at the first opportunity — not renewing it for the 2018 plan year or for 2019.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina has recognized dysphoria as a serious medical issue and covered treatments related to transition, including hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery. Transgender patients and their doctors have testified before the plan’s board of trustees that the treatment is necessary and life-saving.

Despite that, Folwell has said he does not intend to change the policy until ordered to do so by court order.

“We are more than confident the court will deliver just that order,” Brown said. “And explain to Mr. Folwell what the United States Constitution and federal law commands with regard to equal treatment of transgender people.”

Asked for a response to the suit’s filing Monday, Folwell’s office provided a statement nearly identical to the one it produced on the issue in October of last year.

“The State Health Plan’s policy of not covering sex change operations as a benefit is the same now as it was during the entire eight years of Treasurer Janet Cowell’s administration,” Folwell said in the statement.

“Until the court system, a legislative body or voters tell us that we ‘have to,’ ‘when to,’ and ‘how to’ spend taxpayers money on gender reassignment surgery, I will not make a decision that has the potential to discriminate against those who desire other currently uncovered, elective procedures,” Folwell said in the statement.

“The State Treasurer, the Plan’s Executive Administrator, and the Plan’s Board of Trustees have the duty and responsibility to act as fiduciaries for the Plan.  In that effort, the Plan strives to provide a comprehensive benefits program for its members while balancing network access, health benefit offerings, and Plan and member costs.”

Last year’s statement used the term “sex change operations” twice. The term is not used by doctors and is considered offensive by most transgender people.

Monday’s statement used the term once – changing it in the second instance to “gender reassignment surgery.”

Many transgender people elect not to have any surgery related to their transition. The blanket exemption excludes not just surgical procedures but coverage of all treatment related to gender dysphoria – including things like hormone treatment and even talk therapy. Similar treatments available to patients who are not transgender are covered under the plan.

The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association recognize gender dysphoria and transition-related care to treat it as medically necessary and potentially life-saving. A myriad of professional medical organizations have called for an end to transgender-focused exclusions  in public and private health insurance policies.

There are seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

Max Kadel, a 36-year old transgender man who works for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Julia McKeown, a 43-year old transgender woman who teaches at North Carolina State University.

Jason Fleck, an employee of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his 16-year-old son Connor Thonen-Fleck, who is transgender.

Michael D. Bunting  Jr., an employee at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, and his 13 year-old son C.B, who is transgender.

Sam Silvaine, a 30-year old transgender man who is a former employee of North Carolina State University.

Michael Bunting, who has worked at UNC-Chapel Hill for nearly 30 years, said he is retiring this month – in part due to the cost of paying for his 13-year-old C.B’s son’s treatment while it falls under the state employee health plan’s blanket exclusion. The family is currently having to purchase additional, private insurance to cover his treatment.

“He was very brave – knew ‘this is who I am,'” said Shelley Bunting, C.B.’s mother. “It took us many months of learning about it and research – talking with him, talking with therapists, meeting with the school. But he’s a happy kiddo. He’s in 8th grade now, looking at high school.”

Michael and Shelley Bunting.

“He has been amazing,” Michael Bunting said. “He has taught us so much about this. How he has handled the transition socially, with friends and family – it has been graceful and brave. I can’t imagine doing that as a grown person, no matter at his age.”

His parents now hope that the legal fight they’re joining will make things easier for C.B and other people transitioning – at any age.


Groups press governor to transfer transgender woman from men’s prison

Activists, human rights groups and LGBTQ community members gathered outside Gov. Roy Cooper’s office Friday morning to demand the transfer of a transgender woman from a men’s prison in Harnett County.

Kanautica Zayre-Brown has been in solitary confinement since Saturday, in the aftermath of her case getting wider public attention.

This week the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to the Department of Public Safety threatening to sue if a resolution to Zayre-Brown’s

case is not reached by the end of this month.

Sneha Shah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, was on hand as a group met outside the governor’s office Monday morning.

She said those responsible for Zayre-Brown’s confinement must transfer her to a women’s facility and give her the medical treatment she needs. If not, she said, “we will see them in court.”

The governor did not meet with the group, which was not allowed to enter the building. Jeremy Collins, Cooper’s director of community engagement, met with them and received their letter, which was signed by more than 400 people and organizations.

Jeremy Collins, director of engagement for Gov. Roy Cooper, met with activists outside the governor’s office Friday.

Collins told the group Cooper is working with Erik Hooks, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, to resolve Zayre-Brown’s case and make sure similar cases don’t arise in the future.

“Kanautica is a North Carolinian,” Collins told the group. “She’s a family member, a community member. She’s a sister – a family member to all of us. We take that seriously. We want her safety.”

Collins said he wanted the group to know their voices are being heard by the governor on his issue.

“Your protest, your signs, your strident persistence is necessary,” Collins said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Read more