Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina State University Chancellor James Oblinger submitted his resignation Monday, becoming the third top university official to step down in recent weeks.
Oblinger's resignation was effective immediately, according to a memo from University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles.
The move comes one day after the Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting about a severance package Oblinger provided former provost Larry Nielsen that might have violated university policy.
Former UNC-Charlotte Chancellor Jim Woodward will serve as interim chancellor until N.C. State can find a permanent successor, Bowles said.
"Dr. Jim Oblinger has shared with me his decision to resign as chancellor of North Carolina State University, effective immediately," Bowles wrote in the memo. "I have accepted that decision with considerable sadness, but agree fully with Jim’s conclusion that it would be in the best interest of N.C. State and the entire university for him to step down as chancellor and return to the faculty."
Oblinger has served as chancellor since January 2005. He previously served as provost and dean of the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"I am (resigning) because that is what leaders do when the institutions they lead come under distracting and undue public scrutiny. This is particularly true for leaders of public institutions like N.C. State," Oblinger said in a statement.
Nielsen stepped down as provost on May 14, citing public pressure over how he handled the hiring of then-first lady Mary Easley in 2005 and her promotion and raise in 2008. A day later, McQueen Campbell, a friend of former Gov. Mike Easley, resigned as chairman of N.C. State's Board of Trustees amid questions of his role in the hiring.
Nielsen, Campbell and Oblinger have denied any wrongdoing.
Former Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan, who replaced Campbell as chairman of the Board of Trustees, on Friday asked the board to review a deal Oblinger struck with Nielsen that would allow Nielsen to draw his $298,700 salary as provost for longer than a traditional six-month transition period as Nielsen moved to a faculty position in N.C. State's College of Natural Resources.
Documents released Sunday by the university show that Oblinger negotiated a better pay deal for Nielsen – more than what was previously disclosed and more than Oblinger offered when he promoted Nielsen to provost in 2005.
A letter signed by Oblinger and dated May 13 – the day before Nielsen resigned – stipulates that his salary would be reduced over a three-year period. He won't draw the salary of a senior professor until July 1, 2012.
The letter includes a typed notation at the top: "This document was not provided for review and approval by the N.C. State Board of Trustees." It was unclear when that notation was added.
After drawing his full pay as provost through the rest of 2009, Nielsen was to be paid $251,372 from Jan. 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011. The next fiscal year, his salary would drop to $204, 043. The following year, Nielsen would draw a salary of $156,715 – that of a senior professor.
The deal could violate a university policy that limits payouts to one year. It also goes beyond what Oblinger offered Nielsen in a June 22, 2005, letter hiring him as provost.
The typed 2005 letter lists Nielsen's salary offer as $255,000. The number is scratched out and replaced by the handwritten number of $298,700.
The documents also show that Nielsen requested a lawyer to handle any civil or criminal action taken against him for actions done as an N.C. State employee. Oblinger passed that request on to the Attorney General's Office.
Jordan said he regretted Oblinger's resignation, calling him "one of the greatest chancellors" N.C. State has ever had.
"He's done more in four or five years than any (other)," he said. "He could have served a lot longer if he hadn't gotten caught up in the time frame when the Mary Easley issue was raised."
As part of his resignation, Oblinger will retain his salary as chancellor for six months as he moves to a faculty position in the Department of Food Science.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said she supported Oblinger's decision to step down.
"Recent events have become a distraction from the core mission of N.C. State faculty, staff and students. I’m confident in Chancellor Emeritus Woodward’s ability to lead the university on an interim basis and to maintain its focus on excellence in education and innovation," Perdue said in a statement.
Dudley Flood, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, also said he was in support of Oblinger's resignation.
"I know that his honor has said to him that it would be in the best interest of the university for him to step down and I think that is admirable of him,” Flood said.
Jim Ceresnak, student body president at N.C. State, said a lot of students want to put the controversy behind them.
"Students are aware of what has been going on. I think they were ready for action; they were ready for something to happen to stop the hemorrhaging of this controversy. And I think we effectively made moves today to do so,” Ceresnak said.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, an N.C. State alumnus, said Oblinger's departure was a loss for the university.
"I cannot praise Chancellor Jim Oblinger too highly for his leadership of my alma mater. He mobilized the university and our state to focus on innovation and took us to new heights in economic development. He is one of the finest human beings I have ever known," Hunt said in a statement.
Kelli Rogers, president of the N.C. Student Senate, said Oblinger will be missed as chancellor.
“We were certainly sad to see Chancellor Oblinger resign today. He has done a lot for the students on the campus and a lot for this university. And he will be sorely missed,” she said.
Bill Friday, another N.C. State alumnus who led the UNC system for 30 years, said he believes Bowles will lead the system and N.C. State through the leadership crisis.
"President Bowles is a decisive leader who will help bring this most serious matter to an end," Friday said.
Woodward pledged to make N.C. State's administration open and accessible so that questions like those surrounding Mary Easley's hiring and Nielsen's severance package don't arise.
"The failure to be open and transparent by someone in one of these public offices – elected or appointed – has led to their downfall and the damage of their organizations," Woodward said in a phone interview. "I can assure you that, during the time I'm (at N.C. State), we will be an open administration."
Oblinger had previously urged Mary Easley to resign in the best interest of N.C. State – the university fired her hours after Oblinger's resignation – and he said in a statement that he was applying the same standard to himself in his decision to step down.
"The hiring of Mary Easley and her treatment as a university employee involved no impropriety and no coercion. I am absolutely confident that when this chapter of N.C. State’s history is written, the only conclusion drawn will be that the university and all of its officials acted both correctly and honorably," he said. "My principal regret is that this chapter of history and that conclusion will not be written until sometime in the future."
A federal grand jury has subpoenaed Mary Easley's personnel records and any records the State Auditor's Office might have from any investigation into her hiring or the N.C. State provost's office. The FBI is also investigating reports from The News & Observer newspaper that Campbell flew Mike Easley on his private plane but never disclosed the flights in campaign finance reports.