ECU’s leader has big dreams for the university – but Pirate Nation isn’t so sure

Jane Stancill, The News & Observer

Families tour campus during Pirates Aboard! Admitted Student Day Photo by Patrick Fay, ECU

Cecil Staton wants East Carolina to be America’s next great national university.

But first, the chancellor will have to win over Pirate Nation, and others who don’t agree with his lofty vision.

Staton has been the target of critics who hold him accountable for the football team’s back-to-back losing seasons, the new branding of the university as ECU, the controversial purchase of a $1.3 million chancellor’s house and his national aspirations for a university that has been a beacon for economically struggling Eastern North Carolina.

ECU has a proud history, but the Pirate faithful often feel they’re in the shadow of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. The university’s leaders have long fought the party school image and sought marquee academic programs for the state’s largest campus.

The current tension has been building for months, and culminated in the announcement that the unpopular athletic director, Jeff Compher, would leave with as much as a $1.26 million buyout — a year after his contract had been extended for five years. Pirate fans had called for Compher’s firing, with one alumnus even flying a banner over the stadium last year.

A similar message was posted anonymously in January on the ECU Pirate Football Facebook page — a 35-page Google document that asks, “Was the hire of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton an act of gross negligence?”

The dossier begins with a description of “unrest, disappointment and pessimism” among ECU faithful as the football team suffers “unbearable losses amidst questionable decisions.” The document goes into detail about Staton’s previous short stints as a university administrator in Georgia and his decade-long career as a Georgia state senator. It includes the allegation that Staton once used a fake email address and alias to attack political opponents, a story that has previously circulated online.

Staton, a Republican who chaired the appropriations subcommittee on higher education in Georgia, calls the document “nonsensical” and “slander and libel.” He said he has consulted a lawyer about it.

The information is distorted, he said, and the only items of substance were things from his political past that were known by the search committee that interviewed him. Complicating the picture was the recent news that the search consultant in Staton’s hiring returned its $110,000 fee to the UNC system, admitting it did not meet the university’s expectations.

UNC President Margaret Spellings, who recommended Staton’s hiring from three candidates, wrote to the UNC Board of Governors that the firm’s refund had nothing to do with Staton or the other candidates. She said the problem was the firm’s communications, but did not elaborate.

Staton admits the dossier has caused him angst, but he attributes it to vocal, and mad, football fans.

“I think they’re just reaching for anything and everything they can find,” he said, adding, “I think somebody was paid a fair amount of money to try to put that together.”

It’s not unlike the online behavior, he said, that prompted him to ask fans last year not to boo and deride football players.

“I do think because people can hide behind anonymity of social media and say things they would never say to the face of a student, or a coach or an AD or me; that’s just the day we’re in, the new world we’re in,” he said. “The downright meanness is something that, given what my mother taught me, I do find it troubling. I wish there were a way to put the genie back in the bottle. I fear there’s not.”

Staton wants to move beyond the online commentary and criticism that crackles on sports radio shows.

He also wants to move beyond what he says is an invisible wall that prevents ECU from getting credit west of Interstate 95.

The university, with 29,000 students, a medical school and a dental school, deserves more recognition and attention from state lawmakers, he said. If ECU didn’t exist, the state would have to go out and build it today to accommodate a growing state population and an economic need for a more educated workforce.

“This sleepy little school in Eastern North Carolina is not going to be a sleepy little school anymore,” he vowed in a recent discussion with journalists at The News & Observer.

“We’re going to become America’s next great national university. We have all of the components to do that. The impact that we have on this state cannot be disputed based on data and the facts. We’re proud of that, and that Pirate pride runs deep across North Carolina.”

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ECU’s Brody School of Medicine produces mostly primary care doctors, which are in high demand. Photo by Christobal Perez

Staton is taking this case to the legislature. He hopes to win $14 million in state funding to plan a new building for ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and $10 million in increased annual appropriations to grow each medical class from 80 to 120 students.

Last year, he said, the school admitted 82 future physicians out of an applicant pool of 1,080. All are North Carolinians, and ECU’s medical school produces mostly primary care doctors, which are in high demand.

ECU also has a $500 million fundraising campaign under way, and had brought in $168 million by the beginning of last month.

Pirate fans have ponied up, too. Despite two straight 3-9 football seasons, a $60 million stadium renovation is under way and about half the money has been raised.

But Pirate Club booster membership has dropped by several thousand, and as athletic scholarship costs have grown, there is a $2.5 million annual shortfall in scholarship support for its 20 sports programs. ECU, with a $46 million athletic budget, is next to last in spending among schools in its new American Athletic Conference.

Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer who is chairman of the ECU trustees, said much of the dissatisfaction of Pirate Nation stems from a budget that can’t meet high expectations for success.

“If you need a Cadillac of a coach but all you can afford is a Ford Pinto, you’ve got a problem,” he said, adding that ECU is outspent by its conference teams by an average of $17 million per school. “We do a lot with a little, a lot less than anybody else.”

While everyone wants to win, Shanahan said the university can’t lose sight of its major goals, such as growing medical school enrollment. “We’ve been distracted by dealing with wins and losses on the football field,” he said, citing pressure from a group of passionate fans “who maybe don’t quite understand the full picture.”

John Stiller, chairman of the Faculty Senate, said the positive aspects of ECU’s athletics program have been lost in a fierce debate.

“We want the Pirates to succeed, but faculty are most concerned, really, about academics and the balance with athletics,” said Stiller, a biology professor. “Faculty have been happy that our teams are doing pretty well academically, that by and large we have been scandal free, compared to what’s going on in a lot of places.”

Others say ECU leadership appears to be out of touch and isolated in its approach to issues.

Allen Thomas, former three-term Greenville mayor and 1992 ECU graduate, cited what he said is poor communication and lack of consensus building by the university administration.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of bad situations, kind of a pattern,” he said. “And a lot of it is self-inflicted. There’s just a toxic environment right now that the poor quality of performance on athletics has definitely played into.”

The relationship between ECU and Greenville has been frayed, Thomas said.

ECU had worked with the city for months and purchased five properties surrounding the historic chancellor’s house on Fifth Street, next to campus, in order to expand and renovate the aging residence. But that plan was abruptly dropped when the ECU Foundation bought an 8,400-square-foot house with six bedrooms and a swimming pool about three miles from campus.

ECU officials defended the move, saying the $1.3 million home would be cheaper than an estimated $3.5 million renovation of the historic home.

City officials found out about it from media reports, Thomas said.

“People are livid,” he said. “It just sends the wrong message on so many levels — poor communication and unprofessionalism.”

Another ECU graduate, Harry Smith, who is vice chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, went on Pirate Radio and talked about the controversies.

He said the house purchase was a mistake and would put Staton in a bad light. The property, he said, looked like aristocracy.

“I think it sends the wrong message of who we are and where we’re at,” he said. “We’re also in Eastern North Carolina. I mean, we’re surrounded by Tier 1 (low-income) counties.”

Staton, who has been living in a townhouse since he became chancellor July 1, 2016, pointed out that the previous chancellor, Steve Ballard, had warned Staton and his wife that living amid the fraternities close to campus wouldn’t be easy.

“A lot of fraternity houses are just around it,” Staton said. “They can sit on the balconies of their fraternities and look in your backyard.”

But the ultimate decision about the house is up to trustees and the foundation. Staton said he had tried to stay out of it.

The “KEEP the Chancellor’s HOUSE on 5th Street” Facebook page has posted crime reports and photos of beer cans littering the area. Also posted was a photo of a flyer on campus — a parody that said “Roommates Needed” for $9,803 a month, with photos of Staton and the new house. “There’s no limit to where we can sail this Pirate ship,” says a quote next to a picture of Staton.

The cost of the new home in Greenville is actually lower than other chancellors’ houses. N.C. State University built a house for its chancellor for $3 million in 2011, and UNC Greensboro’s Endowment Fund bought a home last year for $1.65 million.

“I bumped into the idea that, ‘Oh, we’re East Carolina. We’re in the east, we shouldn’t have what those other universities have.’ I reject that,” Staton said, adding, “I want my medical students to have the finest facility they can train in for the 21st century.”

He said he gets the notion that nobody feels sorry for well-paid chancellors.

His salary is $450,000, in addition to a home and car paid for by the university. Staton’s move to ECU came with a much larger paycheck: he was paid $165,000 three years ago in Georgia and $290,473 two years ago, according to Georgia state records. UNC board members have quietly grumbled about his salary.

Last year, however, Staton and his wife, Catherine, gave back to the university, pledging $100,000 to a fund to help students afford study abroad.

In addition to the medical school push, Staton said he wants to move the needle on health, education and economic development disparities in the eastern part of the state.

Last fall, ECU announced a Rural Prosperity Initiative, to bring to bear its expertise, research and service to the state’s rural and coastal areas in the east. The university has gained a partner for the effort, RTI International.

Shanahan said Staton has “hit the ground running” despite some challenges and a rocky start. Months into his tenure, 19 band members took a knee on the field during the national anthem in 2016, unleashing criticism aimed at the new chancellor.

That, too, goes back to football, Shanahan said. The online chatter, he said, is unfortunate. “But I think it’s a small group,” he said. “They’re just very angry.”

Faculty were initially skeptical when a Republican politician was named as ECU’s leader, but Stiller, the Faculty Senate chair, said it has been “an extremely minimal issue” since Staton arrived. Faculty are “pleasantly surprised” by how open the chancellor has been and by his attitude toward faculty involvement in decision making, Stiller said.

The problem highlighted by the online dossier, is that the process of vetting university leaders has not been public in recent years. “These highly secret searches that don’t have appropriate faculty and other constituency input lead to this kind of thing,” Stiller said.

The question moving forward is whether ECU can raise its national profile while also meeting the UNC system’s demands to serve more rural and low-income students and raise graduation rates. Those goals are usually in conflict, and hard to achieve with shrinking state resources.

“It can be very difficult to know how this is all going to work out,” Stiller said.

About a third of ECU students receive Pell Grants, the federal financial aid program for needy students. The university accepts about 70 percent of its undergraduate applicants and 61 percent of freshmen in 2010 had graduated by 2016.

According to a performance agreement Staton signed with Spellings, ECU has pledged to increase its low-income students by 12 percent and its rural students by 9 percent. At the same time, the agreement calls on the university to raise its five-year graduation rate to 70 percent for the current freshman class.

While a little bruised by recent events, Staton said he’s up for the new demands.

“I told the committee coming in the door, if you’re looking for a status quo chancellor, I’m not your guy,” Staton said. “But if you really and truly want to take that next step, put me in, coach. I’m ready. I like a challenge.”