East Carolina University’s foundation will spend $1.3 million on a new home for the chancellor – a decision that was criticized by some on social media.
The ECU Foundation has a contract to buy a home about three miles from the Greenville campus. Real estate websites describe the 8,366-square-foot home as having six bedrooms and either seven or nine baths, and a five-car garage. Aerial photographs show a sprawling home on five acres, with a swimming pool and formal gardens.
The property will be the home of Cecil Staton, who was hired as chancellor in 2016 at an annual salary of $450,000.
Harry Smith, the vice chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and an ECU graduate, said he’s opposed to the purchase of the house. In an interview with Pirate Radio 1250 Wednesday, he said the house exudes “aristocracy” in an area of the state with a lot of poverty. He’s concerned it would put the chancellor in a bad position, he said.
“This is a public school system supported by taxpayers’ dollars and kids that are working to put themselves through all of our universities,” Smith said on the radio show. “I think it’s optics. At the end of the day, I think you have to be careful about the messages you send, whether intentional or not.”
He said he would prefer the original plan, which was to renovate the chancellor’s existing home, the Dail House, which was built in 1930 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. That option had been in the works for years, as the university bought several adjacent homes, which were intended for demolition in order to expand the Dail House. The house is on Fifth Street, across the street from campus.
Jeannine Hutson, university spokeswoman, said the cost of the expansion project was $3.5 million, due to issues with the age of the house, which had original plumbing, wiring and asbestos. The home’s small kitchen was not suitable for entertaining and it lacked an elevator to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
“As ECU prepared the materials on the renovation/addition option to present to the Board of Governors, it was decided that a more cost effective strategy than the $3.5 million should be explored,” Hutson wrote in the email. “ECU pulled it from the BOG agenda, and the plan for the ECU Foundation to purchase a house for the chancellor was developed.”
Staton has been living in another foundation-owned property in the meantime, she said.
Hutson said the ECU Foundation will use non-state funds raised for unrestricted purposes, not money that was donated for student scholarships. She said interest from foundation investments would cover the cost of the new home, which Hutson said was offered by an ECU donor and former foundation owner, “at what is expected to be a price well below market value.”
According to Pitt County records, the tax value of the property is $931,932. The home, in the Star Hill Farms area, was built in 1997.
A chancellor’s home is used as much for university events as it is for family living quarters, Hutson said.
Still, some criticized the house purchase when news reports surfaced recently. Former Greenville mayor, Allen Thomas, posted on an ECU Pirate Football Facebook page, questioning the cost, the abrupt change in plans, the lack of communication with the city and the chancellor’s residence relocating miles away from campus.
“We worked hard – the past 2 years with the university, to enable ECU to combine an entire city block of property ... around the current Chancellor’s residence on 5th Street, for their stated purpose – ‘to build the Chancellor a new residence and an event hosting area, next to campus,’” Thomas posted. “They acquired the entire area on 5th street next to campus, taking property off the tax rolls, converting to state owned.”
He added, “Looking forward to clarity.”
Smith said he wants the chancellor to have a “very nice house” suitable for fundraising events, but not one that would send the wrong message.
“I personally don’t think there’s anybody that’s not going to write a check because we don’t take them into an 8,400 square foot house,” Smith said.
Others were taken aback by the cost of the home. One fan posted that ECU was becoming like other “snob schools.”
Another, Mike Kelley, wrote: “I really don’t understand. The cost of this is outrageous. The cost of tuition continually rises. Why isn’t this money being used to decrease tuition? Or provide scholarships? They could certainly use a campus building to host elaborate parties.”
But Andrew Byrne said it’s not out of line compared to other universities. “The chancellor’s house is a tool for reaching out to wealthy donors. It is not meant to project the power and wealth of the chancellor, but rather the gravitas and prestige of the university,” he posted. “Here is why I am fine with this: NC State’s chancellor got an 8500 square foot mansion. Anything good enough for NC State is good enough for ECU.”
In recent years, UNC campuses have moved their leaders out of historic homes to new properties. N.C. State built an 8,500-square-foot home for its chancellor with $3 million in donations. It was completed in 2011. Last year, the UNC Greensboro Endowment Fund purchased a house for the UNC-G chancellor for $1.65 million.