BOG Chair Smith forced ECU's Staton to resign, President Roper did the deed

Published March 18, 2019

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Producer and Moderator of NC SPIN, March 18th, 2019.

For some months we've been reporting that Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith has intimidated and pressured ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton, trying first to get him fired, then when he couldn't get support from other BOG members, finally getting UNC President Bill Roper to do the dirty deed.

The UNC System is trying to whitewash this action by saying that Staton resigned on his own, but a letter from another BOG member Steven Long (which follows in its entirety below) suggests otherwise. Roper asked Staton to resign and negotiated a generous settlement in return for getting the resignation. Staton had little choice, since ECU Trustees had been threatened with replacement  if they would not support Smith's attempts to replace him.

Smith doesn't have the authority to fire Staton himself and neither does President Roper. But if a chancellor resigns, Roper has the authority to negotiate a settlement. If there were legitimate reasons to fire Staton they should have been presented to the full BOG in closed session and action taken. But that's the problem. There were no compelling reasons to fire Staton, other than the longstanding and petty feud Harry Smith has had with the chancellor because he wouldn't agree to a sweetheart real estate deal for Smith.

Other BOG members, our legislature and the general public should be outraged at yet another sign that our university governance system is broken. How can anyone have confidence in the university system when there is systemic corruption, partisan politics and obvious conflicts of interest by those charged with making decisions for it? When is our legislative leadership, the ones who put  these members on the board, going to take action? When is the board itself going to vote to remove Smith and his political and personal  agenda? Malfeasance and corruption in our university system cannot be tolerated by those charged as stewards to uphold the integrity and operation of any public institution, especially the now tarnished "crown jewels" of our state.

If there is legitimacy to this action, we deserve to hear it. Otherwise, it time for people of honor and integrity to stand up to those undermining our university system. And it needs to be done just as publicly and just as quickly.

President Bill Roper, long admired as a man of personal integrity, did not distinguish himself in this drama. It wasn't a good start for his administration.

Read the letter from BOG member Steven Long and form your own conclusions:


 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."