ECU chancellor, whose tenure was marked by controversy, is asked to step down

East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton will leave his job in May, ending a three-year tenure marked by a mix of criticism from some alumni and support from faculty.

The university announced Monday that Staton will leave on May 3. But he will remain as an adviser to the president and interim chancellor through June 30, the university said.

“Let me just simply say: I did not initiate this,” Staton said during a news conference on the Greenville campus Monday morning. He said he had signed a “non-disparagement” agreement with the school last week and told reporters, “Try as you will, I’m not going to speak ill of anyone.”

Earlier, Staton was quoted in a release issued by the school.

“Catherine and I are very grateful for our time at ECU,” said Staton. “We have enjoyed every moment working with our inspiring students and world-class faculty and staff. As we prepare for this transition in leadership, we remain committed to the idea we arrived with — ECU’s future is full of promise. There are no limits to what ECU can attain in service to the East, North Carolina, our nation, and our world and we look forward to following the progress of this great university in the years to come.”

Staton arrived in Greenville in 2016. From the start, some Pirate sports fans and sports radio shows blamed him for losing seasons. As The News & Observer reported earlier this year, Staton also was criticized for the ECU foundation’s purchase of a $1.3 million chancellor’s house off campus and a new university branding campaign. An anonymous online dossier called the hiring of Staton “gross negligence.”

But Staton also had many supporters. In January, dozens of people connected to East Carolina University signed a letter backing Staton and even calling on UNC system leaders to release Staton’s recent performance evaluation as proof that he was doing a good job.

One of Staton’s most vocal critics was Greenville businessman Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC system’s Board of Governors. One of Staton’s staunchest supporters has been Steve Long, one of the members of the board.

Smith and Long remained at odds over Staton on Monday. Long issued a statement after Staton’s departure was announced, saying it brought to an end “one of the saddest and most unfortunate chapters in the history of North Carolina higher education.” Long said Staton continued to have the strong support of his trustees and university community and that the Board of Governors had never been asked about letting Staton go.

He said interim UNC system president Bill Roper had taken the action without consulting with the board. Roper had done so, Long said, “in an effort to end the long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks by Harry Smith.” Long said Smith had wanted to get rid of Staton since 2016, when the chancellor and his trustees turned down a proposal by Smith, a real estate investor, to form a partnership with him over an apartment complex that would serve as student housing. Filling the complex would have involved requiring ECU sophomores to live in campus housing, and classifying the complex as such though it was several miles away.

Long said Roper’s decision to oust Staton had been based on politics, not the chancellor’s performance.

But Smith said Monday that Long’s allegations were insulting and that they amounted to a temper tantrum.

“This was taken on by our president,” Smith said when reached by phone Monday. “I trust our president. I’m behind our president. You have to keep emotions out of it.”

Roper could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a statement from the university, he said, “ECU’s importance to this state and to Eastern North Carolina is immense and I’m grateful that Chancellor Staton answered the call to serve the Pirate community over the past three years. I’m confident he is leaving the university in good hands and with a bright future ahead as it continues to build on its success.”

Staton was the third-highest paid chancellor at any UNC school when he was hired at $450,000 a year. UNC said Monday that Staton would be paid $589,700 on June 30, in addition to his regular salary until then.

At the news conference on campus, Staton said again he feels fortunate to have led ECU. He counted among the successes of his tenure having raised more than $213 million toward the $500 million goal of the school’s largest-ever fund-raising campaign. He launched the Rural Prosperity Initiative, a partnership with Cary-based SAS to improve health care, education and economic well-being in rural North Carolina. He was also proud, he said, of a scholarship program that launched in fall 2018 to provide 1,000 incoming freshmen with $1,000 scholarships.

Staton is a graduate of Furman University with master’s degrees in languages and theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford in England. He served on the faculty and in administration at colleges in Georgia and was a Georgia state senator before coming to ECU. He was the first chancellor hired by former UNC President Margaret Spellings. Spellings left her post this year.

Staton declined to discuss things he might do differently as chancellor if he had the chance. But he said the next chancellor of ECU will need to focus hard on serving first-generation college students from low-income families who make up a large and growing percentage of the school’s student population.

Whoever ECU’s next leader is, Staton said, he hopes they will “be given the time to really get in here and figure it out and do the job they are called to do.

“I’ll be supporting them from the cheap seats.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.