Local News

N.C. State provost resigns over Easley hiring

Posted May 14, 2009 10:39 a.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2009 10:00 a.m. EDT

— North Carolina State University Provost Larry Nielsen resigned abruptly Thursday morning, citing repeated questions over his hiring of the wife of former Gov. Mike Easley.

Nielsen has worked at N.C. State for eight years, the first four as dean of the College of Natural Resources and the last four as provost and executive vice chancellor.

"I have chosen to resign because of the intense public attention and criticism from my hiring of Mrs. Mary Easley and now because of questions surrounding the way I was hired as provost," Nielsen wrote in his . "The personal stress associated with this situation has simply become unbearable. Also, the embarrassment and distraction that this situation has caused our university needs to end. I hope that my resignation will prove to be the solution to these problems."

Mary Easley began working at N.C. State as a part-time lecturer in 2002. Since 2005, she has served as an executive-in-residence and senior lecturer, developing a speakers program and teaching a graduate course in public administration and courses in the Administrative Officers Management Program, which provides leadership training to law enforcement officers.

Last year, she received an 88 percent pay increase, to $170,000 a year. Nielsen and other N.C. State officials defended the move, saying she had taken on additional duties, such as directing pre-law services at the university and serving as a liaison to area law firms and law schools at other universities as she developed a dual degree program.

In a May 10 story, Nielsen said, The News & Observer newspaper implied that his hiring as provost was linked to Mary Easley getting a job at N.C. State, a notion he called "preposterous."

"I am dismayed that many people outside the university, and some within it, have attributed motives to my hiring of Mrs. Easley that are absolutely false and groundless. My only motive, in that action and every other that I have taken as provost, has been to enhance our university’s capacity to serve our mission," he wrote in his resignation letter.

Chancellor James Oblinger called Thursday "a very sad day" for N.C. State and supported Nielsen's contention that there was no link between his promotion to provost and the university's hiring of Mary Easley.

"I have known Larry for eight years, and it is not in his character to do anything that would willfully harm North Carolina State University," Oblinger said. "This situation is not political patronage. There was no influence exhibited by anyone on anyone."

The Millennium Seminars Series, which Mary Easley worked on, was a university idea to attract noted people to N.C. State and raise the university's profile, he said. Former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham are among those who have appeared on campus as part of the series.

Oblinger said he couldn't recall how Mary Easley's name came up as officials searched for someone to direct the Millennium Seminars, but he said she had the network of contacts the university needed in that position.

Still, Republican leaders quickly jumped on Nielsen's resignation as proof that Mike Easley's dealings as governor need to be investigated. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger asked the Attorney General's Office to name a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation.

"The resignation of the provost may indicate that there's a lot more to that story than what we've been told up to this point," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "We ought to have an independent prosecutor, regardless of the politics, regardless of the personalities."

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, declined to comment on any investigation involving the former governor.


 James Martin, chairman of the N.C. State Faculty Senate, said many people at the university still question Mary Easley's hiring and recent raise, especially in light of the budget cuts all state universities now face.

"There are questions as to the academic standards, the use of policy, how things happened. There are unreseolved questions that many people have," Martin said.

Oblinger said he urged Nielsen not to step down, but he said the criticisms prompted by the news reports were affecting Nielsen's health.

"This has gotten to the point where he just could not take it anymore," Oblinger said.

Warwick Arden, dean of N.C. State's College of Veterinary Medicine, will serve as interim provost while the university conducts a national search for Nielsen's successor, Oblinger said.

Nielsen's resignation takes effect on May 22. He will then take a faculty position in the College of Natural Resources.

Among his accomplishments as provost, he managed new efforts in international education, including initiatives in China, the United Kingdom, India, France and South America; led an expansion of the university's diversity programs; created the Pack Promise financial aid plan for needy students; led the university's ongoing budget reduction activities; and created the Guaranteed Textbook Buyback program and Textbook Adoption Incentive Program that saved students money.

"I understand that some people will choose to interpret my resignation at this time as an indication that there is validity to the implications of the newspaper’s stories," he wrote in his resignation letter. "I repeat that the implications of these stories are untrue. I also repeat that I am resigning because I can no longer bear the anguish of dealing with these matters on a daily basis and because I hope that the university can now put this matter to rest as well."