ECU gets an interim chancellor who has been at helm of NC’s Golden LEAF Foundation

Golden LEAF Foundation

Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden LEAF Foundation since 2008, has been named interim chancellor of East Carolina University.

Gerlach will serve in the position being vacated by Cecil Staton on May 3. Staton, who took the job in 2016, announced his resignation last month.

Gerlach’s selection by UNC system interim President Bill Roper was announced at a news conference on the ECU campus in Greenville on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m proud to be part of the Pirate Nation,” Gerlach said at the event. He will be moving to Greenville, he said.

Though the search for a permanent chancellor has not begun, Roper said Gerlach could be a candidate for the job.

Roper said that as he considered who to put in the job, he was looking for someone with strong leadership skills; someone who knows Eastern North Carolina and East Carolina University well; a person of stature and gravitas who can chart a course, marshal resources and push back, when needed, against people who would slow progress; and someone Roper personally knows and trusts.

By Wednesday, Roper said, he would be focused on other pressing issues of the university system. But as he left Greenville, he said, “I will be leaving this institution in very good hands.”

Gerlach will be taking over at a time when ECU is facing serious financial issues. While other campuses in the UNC system are thriving, ECU has seen declines in three of its major revenue streams: tuition, athletics and from the medical services its physicians provide.

Since 2012, ECU has been increasing its enrollment of low-income students, and hopes to continue the trend. The school enrolls more students from low-income counties than any other school in the UNC system.

But enrollment dropped by more than 400 students last fall, costing the school millions of dollars. Several factors could help explain the drop, including a population decline in Eastern North Carolina, where most of ECU’s students have traditionally come from. Some students may also have been drawn to Elizabeth City State University and UNC Pembroke, both of which offer tuition of $500 per semester under a program created by the N.C. General Assembly.

While Gerlach has no experience running a $900 million-per-year university, he has run the Golden Leaf Foundation since 2008. He took the job during the administration of then-Gov. Mike Easley, for whom he had served as a top financial advisor.

Gerlach will be leaving his job at Golden LEAF, he said. He will make $350,000 per year as interim chancellor, according to the UNC system.

Golden LEAF — which stands for Longerm Economic Advancement Fund — is a nonprofit set up in 1999 to administer one half of North Carolina’s annual payments from the settlement with tobacco companies. Based in the heart of flue-cured tobacco country, its goal was to promote economic development and job opportunities in financially stressed counties. According to its 2018 annual report, last year the foundation made 121 grants worth more than $49 million.

Legislators changed the way the foundation is funded in 2015. It no longer automatically receives half the state’s tobacco settlement money, but relies on state appropriations and income from investments. Last year, the foundation had more than $1.2 billion in assets.

The foundation also has been tapped to manage tens of millions of dollars in state hurricane relief funds.

Depending on who was applying for grants and who was receiving them, the foundation has been hailed and criticized by politicians as both a source of salvation and a slush fund.

Foundation grants in 2018 ranged from $10 million to the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center for its Small Business Recovery Fund to $13,020 to Safe Haven of Pender County for shelter and disaster transition assistance.

Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said he was excited about the appointment. “Dan brings immense experience and talent to ECU and has been working for years to help eastern North Carolina as a whole,” he wrote in an email after the announcement. “ECU currently has financial challenges on many fronts and Dan brings decades of experience in managing and developing budgets that work, and is in a unique position to help ECU navigate successfully through some challenging times that lie ahead.”

After he joined Golden LEAF, Gerlach’s name was associated with a controversy that erupted at N.C. State University involving a job there for Mary Easley, Mike Easley’s wife. Emails emerged showing that NCSU’s chancellor at the time, James Oblinger —along with a university trustee, McQueen Campbell; an NCSU lobbyist, Andy Willis; and Gerlach, who worked for Easley at the time — had orchestrated the university’s creating a $170,000-a-year job for Mary Easley.

Oblinger resigned as chancellor after the emails were made public.

Gerlach has bachelor’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame and an MPA in state and local public finance from Syracuse University.

Gerlach will start his new job May 6.

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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.