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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:

COMMENTS REGARDING THE DEPARTURE OF ECU CHANCELLOR CECIL STATON

Steven Long, UNC Board of Governors

March 18, 2019

“Today’s announcement that Dr. Cecil Staton is stepping down as Chancellor East Carolina University ends one of the saddest and most unfortunate chapters in the history of North Carolina higher education. Chancellor Staton has the strong support of his trustees and university community, received a positive job evaluation in the last six months and has done nothing to warrant termination of his service.  I came to know him well as the Board of Governors liaison to ECU.  Cecil Staton is a good man and great leader.

“Yet, despite what would normally be a record to be applauded, Chancellor Staton was asked to resign by the interim UNC president, Bill Roper, in an effort to end the long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks by Harry Smith, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

“The UNC Board of Governors has never met to discuss any possible termination of Chancellor Staton.  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.  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.

“This extraordinary series of events underscores the fact that Dr. Roper’s actions were based on politics, not the Chancellor’s performance.  Specifically, Dr. Roper acted to satisfy Harry Smith’s irrational personal vendetta against the Chancellor.   Harry Smith has been seeking the Chancellor’s removal ever since Chancellor Staton and his trustees rejected in 2016 Mr. Smith’s proposal to buy an apartment complex near ECU if the University would change its housing policy.  Since that time, he has become obsessed with removing the Chancellor.  President Margaret Spellings told me months ago that in virtually every conversation she had with Harry Smith he turned the conversation eventually to ECU and his criticism of the school’s leaders.  I and other members of the Board of Governors have had a similar experience.

“The public would be greatly disappointed and surprised if they knew the persistent and extreme actions that Harry Smith has taken to undermine Chancellor Staton as well as the hours of fruitless, wasted energy spent by ECU trustees and UNC System administrators addressing how to deal with Harry Smith and his daily threats and attacks.  Since 2016, Harry Smith has subjected ECU leaders to never-ending criticism.  He has repeatedly criticized the university’s purchase of a Chancellor’s residence even though it cost less than refurbishing the old one, has said the Chancellor was responsible for a downturn in athletic revenues that resulted from declining football revenues and a conference exit fee paid before Chancellor Staton arrived, and falsely accused Chancellor Staton of not reporting accurately information on his professional biographical record – a charge that was investigated by the Board of Governors Audit Committee and thoroughly rejected.  Harry Smith has relentlessly spoken ill of Chancellor Staton in contacts with Board of Trustee members, threatened not to re-appoint trustees who support Chancellor Staton or to deny ECU funding if the trustees continued to support the Chancellor. He has relayed to Board of Governors members a false report that the Chancellor’s chief of staff thought he should be removed. And he falsely stated in November 2018 that he was recusing himself from East Carolina University affairs – likely because his misleading attacks had exposed the UNC System to potential liability.  At the same time that he has engaged in these behind the scenes actions, Harry Smith has publicly professed support for the Chancellor.

“Harry Smith also has undermined Chancellor Staton by meddling far too much in the management of ECU.  Last year, he attempted, without the Chancellor’s approval, to negotiate an employment contract with the interim ECU athletic director.   He also contacted another university to discuss its legal dispute with ECU without obtaining the Chancellor’s approval of the contact – something that no board member should do.

“Cecil Staton brought great energy, innovation and wisdom to the Chancellor’s office.  He launched a new marketing and branding campaign to increase awareness of ECU nationally and internationally; laid out initiatives to increase research activity; developed a plan to double the number of students participating in study abroad; increased the enrollment of the ECU Honors College; launched an  initiative to increase enrollment at the Brody School of Medicine by 50% over the next five years; and obtained a partnership with the computer data analytics firm, SAS, for a Rural Prosperity Initiative to improve rural living through improvements in healthcare, education, and economic development.  He has worked tirelessly to launch and support a $500 million capital campaign, the largest in ECU’s history, by meeting with alumni and donors throughout the United States. The Chancellor’s wife told me that he is on the road or at university events most nights of the week working to support ECU.

“All of that momentum has now been lost.  Harry Smith has done damage to the University of North Carolina system and particularly to East Carolina University.  Until he is gone, Harry Smith will continue to do damage to our State’s greatest asset.”

2 Comments


  1. Kat

    March 19, 2019 at 8:05 am

    Sounds like “Harry” is the one that needs to leave his post. Who is going to look further and hard into the fact that this was done without the full boards support or knowledge? This is bullying on an adult scale!

  2. Kate

    March 19, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    The problem with Long’s statement is that the wonderful things he is stating the chancellor did for ECU are the reason the majority in the east were not supporters of Cecil Staton. Mr. Long mentions the new marketing campaign that cost the university millions, that hurt the brand of East Carolina. Enrollment at the school is down currently. Moral of the University’s employees is at an all-time low, mainly caused by policies Staton put into place. The relationship East Carolina has with the town of Greenville has also been fractured due to Cecil Staton making decisions and going back on promises made to the city after money was spent. The hope is that the school can move forward from this time and rebuild relationships that Cecil Staton tore down.

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