RALEIGH — More than 120 high-profile supporters of East Carolina University sent a letter Tuesday afternoon to UNC System President Margaret Spellings, Interim UNC President Dr. Bill Roper, the UNC Board of Governors, and ECU’s Board of Trustees, asking all to allow Chancellor Cecil Staton “to continue in his position without continued threats,” and calling for the release of a recent 360 review, which contains information about the chancellor’s work and accomplishments since he was hired in 2016.
Concern over unfair accusations linger, the group wrote, and the chancellor continues to be blamed for problems in the ECU athletics department Staton inherited. Tuesday evening, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, an ECU alum who has tangled with Staton and other university leaders, including Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan, issued a statement saying he once again plans to become active in ECU affairs.
“With positive things happening at ECU today we can only wonder what Dr. Staton might be able to accomplish if given the latitude to run the university as he has been charged to do,” the letter supporting Staton reads. “There has not been a week he has not been faced with distracting criticism and threats. We feel this is unfair and has been a hindrance to the progress of the university.”
The letter emerged from a group of about 10 high-level backers of the university and the chancellor late last week. Quickly, it became what was described to Carolina Journal as a grass-roots movement, with people asking to sign on.
Signers include Dr. Michael Waldrum, the CEO of Vidant Health (the hospital network affiliated with ECU’s Brody School of Medicine); Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly; former state Rep. Brian Brown; Ferrell Blount, former chairman of the N.C. Republican Party; Scott Shook, chairman of the N.C. Community College Board and a member of the ECU Board of Visitors; Tom Campbell, host of the UNC-TV public-affairs program “NC SPIN”; Henry Hinton, former chairman of the ECU Foundation and former member of the UNC Board of Governors; numerous former members of the ECU Board of Trustees; members of the ECU Foundation, Board of Visitors, Pirate Club, and top officials of various faculty, athletic, and academic support groups.
The letter includes strong allegations:
“We are concerned that Dr. Staton has been under a cloud since his hiring with unfair accusations and investigations which have been a continued distraction and hindered his ability to lead. …
“There have been continuing frivolous charges against Dr. Staton regarding questions about his hiring, the use of outside contractors, his role in the purchase of the Chancellor’s home and other “items that have been repeatedly investigated by the [UNC Board of Governors] and he has been exonerated of any job threatening behavior each and every time. Why then do these things continue to surface as the reasons why he must be removed?
“We are concerned that rumors persist that Chancellor Staton will be removed in spite of the support of the trustees and the people who know him best.
“We feel it is time for the evaluation of the Chancellor to become public and we would like to offer our support to him. In fact, we would ask that, with the permission of the Chancellor, the 360 review recently finished be released so that it can become part of the record. It is confusing that a document designed and paid for by the university would not be available to those of us invested in the university. Many of us gave our time to be interviewed for the document and find it insulting that this document has been hidden from view since its publishing.
“In short we are asking that Chancellor Station be allowed to continue in his position without continued threats. It seems beneath this great institution for this to continue.”
CJ reported in November that Staton had planned to leave ECU before Jan. 1 after continuing tensions between the chancellor and critics, including Smith.
Staton denied the reports and remains at the helm of the university. CJ stands by its earlier reporting, based on sources familiar with the situation in Greenville. To date, officials from the UNC System offices haven’t issued a denial of the original story.
Staton also requested public release of the 360 report. The university refused, citing personnel secrecy exceptions to the state’s public records law. First Amendment attorney John Bussian, representing CJ, said the exception doesn’t apply and argued UNC is likely violating the law by keeping the report secret.
The letter backing Staton was sent late Tuesday, a few hours before Smith released a statement saying he was officially reversing his Nov. 9 decision to cut off contact with the Greenville campus.
“Based on an overwhelming number of requests from and outreach by ECU faculty, staff, and alumni, I have reconsidered my exit from ECU,” Smith’s statement said.
“It has been an unfortunate past few months for ECU — where a small few have utilized a false narrative to create division among those who most want to help the University thrive.”
CJ reported Monday that Smith — despite his promise to Kieran Shanahan he would cut off all communication with the campus or its leaders — had remained in frequent contact with ECU board members and other supporters, and spoke Monday afternoon at the ribbon-cutting of the Main Campus Student Center.
CJ contacted Smith Tuesday evening for comment. In a telephone interview, Smith alleged CJ published a series of false stories and said to direct all further communications to his personal attorneys or UNC System counsel Tom Shanahan.