ECU chancellor: 'I did not initiate' decision to step down

UNC Board of Governors member points finger at board Chairman Harry Smith in Cecil Staton's departure from East Carolina University, saying Smith is bad for state university system.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
GREENVILLE, N.C. — East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton will step down after the school's May 3 commencement, he announced Monday.
Staton, who came to ECU three years ago after a career as a Georgia lawmaker and an entrepreneur, will then serve until June 30 as an adviser to University of North Carolina Interim President Dr. Bill Roper to help transition to an interim chancellor.

He'll be paid his $450,000-a-year salary until then, then get a separate payment of $589,700 by July 15, according to separation details provided by the university system. Staton also signed a non-disparagement agreement, which the system declined to release Monday, saying it was a personnel record exempt from the state's open records law.

"Let me just simply say I did not initiate this," he said during a late morning press conference.

Staton's departure is the third high-profile one in the the last six months, following UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. It had been discussed for months.

Steve Long, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, said in a written statement Monday that Staton was pushed out by board Chairman Harry Smith over "politics, not the chancellor's performance." Long essentially called for Smith's removal less than a year after the board voted unanimously to make Smith chair.

"Harry Smith has done damage to the University of North Carolina system and particularly to East Carolina University," Long wrote. "Until he is gone, Harry Smith will continue to do damage to our state's greatest asset."

Smith said in a telephone conversation that "everything in Steve's letter is actually incorrect" and that, "in the right time and place," it will be corrected. He said Long was "leading with anger" instead of the facts and that he didn't direct Roper to negotiate Staton's removal.

"I didn't ask the president to do this in any shape form or fashion," Smith said.

Staton and Smith have clashed, though, for much of Staton's tenure in Greenville. Smith, an ECU alumnus, has particularly criticized decisions on athletics. Rumors that Staton was on the way out go back well before Roper succeeded Spellings as system president.

Long said Staton had the support of ECU's Board of Trustees, a positive job evaluation in the last six months and that he has "done nothing to warrant termination." Long pointed to a potential apartment deal that Smith pitched at ECU, which Smith himself could have profited from, as the genesis of efforts to push Staton out.

"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," Long wrote. "Since that time, he has become obsessed with removing the Chancellor."

Smith acknowledged last year that he hoped to develop an apartment complex at the campus and said it would have been good for the university. Emails show university leadership opposed the deal, which was eventually shelved.
Smith was also accused in a lawsuit last year of trying to steer a housing contract at North Carolina Central University toward a developer he'd worked with in the past, something he and another Board of Governors member accused in the suit denied.

Both issues came out before the Board of Governors voted to make Smith chairman.

Long said Smith has "relentlessly spoken ill of Chancellor Staton," threatened not to reappoint campus trustees who supported Staton and to deny ECU funding if they did.

Smith acknowledged Monday that he's taken issue with decisions made at ECU, but he said he hasn't criticized Staton.

"I've never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil," he said.

Long also said that the Board of Governors, which meets Thursday at Appalachian State University, didn't discuss Staton's removal at all.

"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," Long wrote.

Staton seemed upbeat at his press conference Monday, and he repeatedly declined to discuss any controversy with the Board of Governors, other than to encourage reporters to contact board members. He said he has "a wonderful relationship with most of the members" and noted that he was one of Spellings' first hires, and now she's gone.

He also quoted a line from the musical "Les Miserables."

"There are some dreams that don't get fulfilled, and there are some storms you cannot weather," he said.


Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.