In March of 2019 Dr. Cecil Staton announced he would step down as ECU’s chancellor after just three years. In his parting words, he stated: “I did not initiate this.”
Outcry from ECU officials and BOG members ensued. For context, Staton’s exit closely followed both Margaret Spellings’ and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt’s. Fellow BOG member Steve Long immediately blamed Harry Smith. He alleged in a written letter that Staton was “pushed out” by Smith over political disputes rather than an issue with the chancellor’s performance. Specifically, Long, the BOG’s liaison to ECU, accused Smith of having an “irrational personal vendetta” against Staton and that Smith had sought to have Staton removed since Staton and ECU trustees rejected Smith’s 2016 proposal to buy an apartment complex near ECU. Long then claimed Smith became “obsessed” with removing the chancellor, deemed Smith’s actions “persistent and extreme,” that consisted of “daily threats and attacks.”
“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.”
~ from Comments Regarding the Departure of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton, authored by Steve Long on March 18, 2019.
Smith denied Long’s allegations and accused his fellow board members of “leading with anger.”
While Smith said he had “nothing to do with Chancellor Staton’s forced resignation,” ECU’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees Kieran Shanahan disagreed.
“Harry Smith is not telling the truth…I had a front row seat to all of this, and he has been micro managing and directing singularly the effort to undermine Cecil Staton. I’ve had direct conversations with him that, and other board members have as well, that if we did not remove Cecil our funding would be cut, and that’s somewhat happened and that people who supported Cecil would be removed.”
-Kieran Shanahan, March 19, 2019.
WCU Chancellor Search Derailed
Dysfunction and infighting on the BOG reached new heights during the hiring of a new chancellor of Western Carolina University after beloved Chancellor David Belcher died of brain cancer.
At a closed-door meeting, former UNC System President Spellings was supposed to present a top candidate vetted by the WCU search committee and the president’s office. The vote never happened.
The proceedings went off the rails when Tom Fetzer breached confidentiality by sending the name of the top candidate to a private firm to investigate alleged irregularities on the candidate’s CV. The investigator Fetzer hired found instances where the candidate supposedly misrepresented his academic record. BOG member Steve Long critiqued Fetzer for possibly violating BOG policy. In describing Fetzer’s actions, Long noted they were “highly unusual, it disrespected the process and it was unprofessional. You don’t even know this candidate, and you ascribed to him the worst of intentions.” Then-BOG Chairman Lou Bissette called the episode “an unauthorized disclosure of confidential search information to a third party.”