UNC System Board of Governors Reported to be in Conflict

Tyra Hilliard
Staff Writer

PC: ECU Ballengeem

The chancellor of East Carolina University (ECU), Cecil Staton, announced his resignation on Monday, March 18. However, the reveal of this decision was expected by many since Staton started the position in 2016.

The resignation has nothing to do with his job performance, as records show that he meets standards placed by the UNC System. Instead, it stems from Staton’s conflict with Harry Smith, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

In a press conference earlier this week, Staton avoided questions directly about the issues, but he did say his resignation was not of his own thoughts. The idea was brought to him in the form of a suggestion.

“There are some dreams that don’t get fulfilled, and there are some storms you cannot weather,” said Staton said, referring to the musical, “Les Miserables.”

In 2018, the same issues caused Margaret Spellings to resign from her position as the UNC System President. Not long after, Carol Folt resigned from her pedestal as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill in January 2019. With Staton being the third UNC system leader to face the same problems stemming from a division of power and micromanaging from the Board of Governors, the entirety of the board is in an uproar.

Board member Steve Long, liaison to ECU, publicly placed accusations of Smith trying to gain momentum in the move to removal Staton and pushing UNC President, Bill Roper to lead the process. Long stated that Smith held a “personal vendetta” against Staton that is associated with a bad business deal in the past. Smith denied pushing for Staton’s termination, and told WRAL that, “Everything in Steve’s letter is actually incorrect. I’ve never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil.”

An email Smith sent to state Representatives Greg Murphy (R-Pitt) and John Bell (R-Craven) in July 2018 shows that Staton criticized and expressed disappointment in a column that he wrote for Raleigh’s News & Observer promoting funded cuts for public schools stated otherwise.

Smith, who is a political appointee of the General Assembly, proceeded to call Staton’s comments inappropriate and apologized to lawmakers for Staton’s, “poorly written and thought out op-ed” and that the article downplayed Staton’s performance as chancellor of ECU.

“It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university. Leaders take accountability and they don’t point the finger,” wrote Smith. “I’m happy to sit down with Cecil and discuss in great detail the many issues we have had under his leadership that he was in direct control over and has greatly hurt and divided ECU.”

In an interview with Policy Watch, Long related the email to the kind of negative assessment Smith shared with board members and the UNC community before he became apart of the UNC System. Long said that Smith justified worries that board members had about his attitude and habit to let personal conflicts control his professional decision making.  

“I think we were all very concerned. We didn’t know how he was going to turn out to be,” said Long. “Now, it’s clear. He needs to be replaced.”

The replacement of Smith would need a two-thirds majority vote of the board.

“I don’t think so at this point, but I don’t know,” said Long in reference to where the board stands agreeing to get rid of Smith. The full board meets Friday, April 5, at Appalachian State University.

Three members of the board whose identities remain confidential told Policy Watch that the member are divided about the issue. Some are against Smith while others are lobbying to formally disapprove of the way Long publicly denounced the way in which Staton was asked to resign and for publicly criticizing Smith.

Those watching political and national education experts say that the conflicts happening within the board are hurting the UNC system’s reputation.

“The stories coming out of North Carolina have garnered national attention,” said Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Thomas Harnisch. “People are seeing heavy turnover in key leadership spots. That can lead to top talent not applying for those positions. Higher education is a community. People certainly talk to each other. All of these transitions are piling up and taking a toll on the state’s reputation.”

Harnisch also added, “The UNC system has long been the state’s crown jewel. But the current UNC Board of Governors has normalized a strident partisanship that is troubling to most who work in higher education, he continued.

In recent years, since Republicans have taken the majority in the General Assembly, the board has worked through its partisan agenda by closing academic career centers and quarreling with faculty, staff and school leaders, chancellors and boards of trustees on everything ranging from curriculum and freedom of speech to faculty criticizing state government and the removal of confederate statues. In addition, the board is declining in diversity in terms of race, gender, and political representation.

House Republicans carried out their choice of appointments to the board. The appointments will remove Walter Davenport, a black Democrat who wished to continue serving and replace him with Terry Hutchens, a white Republican.  Joe Knott, a board member who has had his run-ins with Smith, will not be reappointed in his position.

“North Carolina has gained a reputation where its Board of Governors is very political,” said Harnisch. “There’s a lot of instability emanating from that board. All of the stories about in-fighting on the board, firings and resignations over the last several years, top talent sees that and may decide they don’t want to be a part of it.”

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