Cecil Staton has a career about as varied as any university leader – a religion scholar, faculty member, administrator, entrepreneur and state senator in Georgia.
On Wednesday, he was elected as East Carolina University’s next chancellor by the UNC Board of Governors in a unanimous vote. A campus search committee had identified several finalists, and UNC President Margaret Spellings nominated Staton to the board.
Staton, 58, is now interim president of Valdosta State University in Georgia and vice chancellor for extended education for the University System of Georgia. He starts the ECU job July 1, at an annual salary of $450,000, succeeding Steve Ballard, who has led the Greenville campus for 12 years.
Spellings said Staton brings “a rare blend of leadership experience in higher education, the private sector and elected public office, as well as a practical understanding of how to bring diverse communities and constituencies and organizations together to get things done.”
In the past year at the 11,300-student Valdosta State, Staton turned around enrollment declines, pumped up fundraising and expanded online and competency-based education programs, Spellings said. The year before that, he took on the role as a vice chancellor for the Georgia public higher education system, which has 29 campuses and 318,000 students.
He served five terms in the Georgia state Senate, from 2004 to 2014, where he was vice chairman of the Senate Republican caucus and majority whip. He led appropriations subcommittees on community health and higher education. He said Wednesday he played the role of “the chief cheerleader for higher education” in the legislature.
Born and raised in Greenville, S.C., Staton was a first-generation college student. His father, who fixed shoes for a living, never finished high school. His mother, who helped start a business, never went to college.
But Staton went from Furman University, where he got an undergraduate degree, to the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned two master’s degrees, and finally to Oxford University in England, where he received a doctorate. At Oxford, he focused on the Old Testament, Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern studies.
“That was quite an unexpected journey for a kid who grew up with a textile mill just across the road,” he said.
He called public higher education the “grandest of enterprises,” and said when he and his wife visited Greenville, it felt like home.
But all public higher education faces challenges, he said, including strained state budgets, competition and the digital revolution.
“I am convinced that East Carolina University is in a unique position, not only to persevere in the face of change, but to thrive in this climate of change,” Staton said Wednesday, shortly after he was announced. “I became convinced through this process that ECU understands the necessity to be an innovative institution that always, always puts students first.”
He talked about research and innovation, regional economic vitality, teacher preparation, health care and other priorities, including embracing student athletes. He ended his remarks Wednesday with “Go Pirates.”
Staton began his academic career at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga., where he was an assistant professor of religion from 1989 to 1991. He then spent the next 12 years at Mercer University in Macon, a multi-campus institution with professional programs in medicine, law, business, education, pharmacy, engineering and nursing.
At Mercer, he moved up the ranks to be associate provost and publisher of the university press, where he helped build a $4.5 million endowment to support academic publishing.
Along the way, Staton turned to the private sector, where he founded two publishing companies in the 1990s and 2000s and Georgia Eagle Media, a holding company for radio, TV and newspaper properties.
He currently serves on the board of directors of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the board of visitors of the University of Georgia. Staton and his wife, Catherine, have two sons.
New director named for UNC-TV
The UNC Board of Governors also named a new director and general manager of UNC-TV on Wednesday.
Brian Sickora, president and chief executive officer of WSKG Public Media in Binghamton, N.Y., will start the UNC-TV job on July 1 at an annual salary of $235,000. He succeeds Gail Zimmermann, who has served as interim director and general manager since 2014.
Sickora will run the 12-station public television network. which has a $26.5 million budget and 200 employees statewide.
Sickora has led WSKG Media, a community-licensed network of two television stations and 13 radio stations, since 2007.
Before that, he spent four years with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., where he was vice president for system development and station grants administration.
Earlier in his career, he was president and chief executive officer of Florida-based Infinite Outsource, Inc., the first “outsourced” development service model in public broadcasting; executive vice president for operations and administration at Oregon Public Broadcasting; director of budget and finance for Pennsylvania State University’s College of Outreach and Cooperative Extension; and finance director for Penn State Public Broadcasting. He has served on the national PBS Board of Trustees since 2013.
He is a Penn State graduate.