In 2016, when Cecil Staton was chosen to replace the retiring chancellor at East Carolina University, his arrival in Greenville came with typical rounds of welcome that gave little hint of the turmoil to come.
Staton seemed to have everything—experience in business, politics, and academia. He’d run small publishing companies, served five terms as a Georgia state senator, and spent a year as interim president at Georgia’s Valdosta State University. A conservative Republican with a religious studies doctorate from Oxford, he had the right credentials both academically and politically. The UNC System’s Republican-majority Board of Governors gave its unanimous approval.
His first week on the job, Staton told local reporters that ECU, with nearly 29,000 students, was poised to become “the next great national university in this country.” Soon, a rebranding effort gave the school a new slogan: “Capture Your Horizon.”
Faculty raised eyebrows. Some saw the rebranding as a waste of money. And Staton’s goal of creating the “next great national university,” a phrase he repeated like a mantra, didn’t resonate at a campus committed to serving Eastern North Carolina. “This is a place where people are deeply invested in the region. We think we’re a darned good regional institution,” says Jeff Popke, a geography professor and former faculty chair. “So it was kind of insulting.”
Less than three years later, Staton resigned, swamped by controversy, caught between powerful quarrelling governance bodies, and leaving behind enrollment and budget problems that threatened two of ECU’s most cherished assets—its service mission to Eastern North Carolina and its athletics program.
This month, ECU’s new, permanent chancellor arrives. Philip Rogers, a former ECU administrator, is returning to his hometown from Washington, D.C., where he served as senior vice president of learning and engagement for the respected American Council on Education.
Rogers takes charge at a school that provides an economic engine for Eastern North Carolina, the best hope for the impoverished communities that surround it. The late U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan once summed up ECU’s impact this way: “If you took East Carolina University—and especially the medical school—out of the East, we would look like a developing nation.”
The 37-year-old chancellor-elect also confronts uncertainty. Perhaps the Staton years were simply an unfortunate chapter in East Carolina’s history. But as public universities face growing financial and demographic challenges, ECU’s recent difficulties might also be a foreshadowing.
A Chip on Their Shoulders
East Carolina University is known as Pirate Nation. Its pirate mascot is a shoutout to real-life buccaneers who once prowled North Carolina’s coast. Few schools get more mileage out of a nickname. Skull and crossbones emoji adorn ECU’s official tweets. The word “ARRRGH!” runs across a wall in the new student center. Alumni greet each other by crooking their pointer fingers into pirate hooks.
But there’s also an unofficial phrase students and alumni use to describe themselves: They say they have a chip on their shoulder. The phrase speaks to ECU’s history. And in a region whose residents may feel excluded from the state’s prosperity, it helps explain Eastern North Carolina’s devotion to the university and its football team.
Once a small teachers college, ECU is located about 80 miles east of Raleigh, in downtown Greenville—which was once home to one of the world’s largest tobacco markets. During market season, when flecks of dried tobacco escaped their bales, they’d drift onto campus, alighting on students.
Today, with the tobacco markets gone, the university is a key player in efforts to stem the state’s growing rural-urban economic divide. Its graduates—teachers, medical personnel, engineers, entrepreneurs—supply Eastern North Carolina with professionals. The school ranks 33rd out of nearly 400 universities in U.S. News & World Report’s social mobility ranking, evidence of its success enrolling and graduating low-income students. It also enrolls nearly half of its in-state undergraduate students—several thousand more than any other UNC campus—from rural counties.
Yet for all its success, the school is overshadowed by UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, both older, richer, and more selective. Pirate supporters often feel aggrieved. “The university has to fight for everything it gets,” says Troy Dreyfus, co-owner of Pirate Radio 92.7 FM, a Greenville sports station. “They don’t get handed anything like some of our friends to the west.”
That fight is part of the university’s origin story. In the 1960s and ’70s, with the legendary Leo Jenkins in charge, the teachers college transformed itself into a comprehensive university with a medical school that produces many of North Carolina’s family physicians. Chancellor Jenkins shamelessly prodded state legislators for money. Other campuses talked smack about Jenkins and his aggressive politics. In Eastern North Carolina, he was a hero.
ECU’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was also built under Jenkins’ watch. During home-game Saturdays, as many as 50,000 fans converge in Greenville, tailgating as city streets fill with East Carolina purple and gold. Those fall Saturdays can feel like a revival—Eastern North Carolina coming together—one local alumnus told me.
Football is ECU’s ethos made flesh. On the field, the Pirates can prevail against anyone, including Chapel Hill.
But when Staton arrived in 2016, the Pirates weren’t prevailing much at all, and Jeff Compher, ECU’s athletic director, was getting most of the blame.
Compher had fired coach Ruffin McNeill a year earlier after the Pirates went 5-7. McNeill, an ECU alumnus, had an overall record of 42-34, and he’d taken the team to four bowl games. Even sportswriters had been puzzled. “The Pirates better hope they have a foolproof plan,” SB Nation wrote, “because they just fired a great coach in a crowded market.”
Fans speculated that Compher wanted to replace McNeill with a bigger-name coach to match the program’s ambitions. Though college football attendance was slipping nationally, ECU athletics was in growth mode. The school had recently moved into the American Athletic Conference, which incurred costs but promised more exposure and higher revenues. It was also building a $60 million stadium addition—a tower with a press box and sky boxes.
In a statement explaining McNeill’s firing, Compher had said he wanted to “move our football program in a different direction.” Unfortunately, the direction was downhill. In 2016, the Pirates went 3-9 under new coach Scottie Montgomery, their worst record in years.
Staton hadn’t yet arrived when Compher fired McNeill. But the next year, with trustee support, Staton gave Compher a $70,000 raise and five-year contract extension. Suddenly, fans were focusing their anger on trustees—and on Staton.
One of those fans was Dr. John Bream, a 38-year-old emergency room physician from Greensboro. Bream, a quintessential chip-on-the-shoulder Pirate, was a first-generation college student from Hamlet who won a scholarship to Chapel Hill but chose East Carolina.
“I think, at heart, ECU is more about the regular folks, if that makes sense,” Bream told me. “Maybe they had a 3.2 GPA. They’re in the top third of the class, not the top 10. Those kids have a lot to prove. Maybe they’re like me—they kind of hate UNC. People are bound by that tie. They come to ECU because they’ve got something to prove.”
What made Bream angry wasn’t just that the Pirates were losing, but that a group of powerful trustees wouldn’t acknowledge what he and many other fans believed—the Athletics Department was in bad financial shape, and it was Compher’s fault.
In September 2017, Bream created a Facebook page called “Fire Compher” and began posting news and controversies related to Pirate athletics. The page amassed 2,000 followers.
By then, Bream had begun his own informal investigation, requesting athletics-budget documents. He also decided to take his protest to the skies, raising more than $1,000 on GoFundMe to hire a small plane—the kind that pulls banners advertising happy hours and oyster specials at the beach. Bream’s banner flew above the stadium twice. “Fire Compher!” it read. “Go Pirates!”
For the second consecutive year, the Pirates ended 3-9. Three months later, Compher resigned. He had four years remaining on his recently extended contract, so he left with a buyout agreement that paid up to $1.26 million, depending on Compher’s future employment.
“Libel and Slander”
Shortly after the “Fire Compher!” banner fluttered above Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, a document, written anonymously, landed in email inboxes around Greenville.
Replete with footnotes, it complained about Staton’s decision to give ECU’s unpopular athletic director a new contract and raise amid athletic deficits and football losses. Its provocative title suggested bigger problems: “Was the Hire of ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton an Act of Gross Negligence?” It became known as the dossier.
In January 2018, Staton denounced the document during remarks at a Faculty Senate meeting. By then, people had been reading and forwarding it for weeks.
“As with every new position there are surprises,” Staton began. “I couldn’t have been surprised more at the extent to which some people will go who are unhappy about the fact that we’ve had two losing football seasons. And that some of them would even spend a great deal of effort and time to create a dossier on your chancellor, and who would impugn my integrity and character and, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, cross the lines of libel and slander.”
While Staton claimed surprise at the dossier, John Stiller, a biology professor and faculty chair, was already familiar with most of its contents. He’d been one of two faculty members on a 17-member search committee that recommended chancellor finalists to the ECU Board of Trustees. A search firm had provided the committee with background information that included some of the same information in the dossier.
Stiller, therefore, knew about the dossier’s strangest allegation—that in 2011, while Staton was a Georgia state senator, he sent out emails using a fake name—Beth Merkelson—to attack certain Republican legislators who were on the opposing side of a GOP power struggle.
This allegation was far from top-secret information. The Telegraph, in Macon, Georgia, wrote about the incident in 2011, reporting that a Republican volunteer’s forensic investigation concluded that Staton and the fictitious Beth Merkelson shared the same computer IP address. The dossier includes some of the emails, including one that was purportedly sent by Merkelson with a message signed “Cecil Staton.” Amid the controversy, Staton had stepped aside as majority whip. The authorship of the emails was never publicly resolved.
Stiller says he’d had “tremendous concerns” when he read about the emails. He made sure to bring the issue to the attention of fellow committee members. But the strict nondisclosure agreement he signed—he compares it to “something you’d sign for a bomb project”—prohibited him from talking to anyone outside the search process.
In many states, public universities reveal finalists for their executive jobs, says Rod McDavis, managing principal of higher education executive search firm AGB Search. Often, these finalists meet their campus communities during open forums.
In recent decades, the UNC System moved away from this practice, contending that openness discourages top candidates from applying. In 2018, the system’s board adopted a policy that specifically forbids it. Stiller and other faculty leaders say that’s a mistake. They argue that secret chancellor searches pave the way for fiascos like the dossier, which allowed controversial elements of Staton’s past to explode into scandal after he took the job.
“If the search had been done in light of day,” says Popke, the former faculty chair, “I think it’s probably true Staton wouldn’t have been picked.”
When Staton denounced the dossier at the Faculty Senate meeting, he never delved into specifics. He didn’t mention the Merkelson emails. Soon, he segued to another topic altogether.
“Right now in our country, we’re talking about the wall between the United States and Mexico,” he told faculty members. “Let me talk to you about the wall I’m concerned about. It’s the wall that runs up and down I-95. And you can’t see it, but it’s there. And it’s a wall where I find it incredibly difficult to get beyond it the great news of what’s going on at ECU.”
When he finished, no one asked about the dossier. I asked Stiller if he recalled why. He speculated that professors had come to feel that it didn’t matter what they asked their chancellor. “He wasn’t viewed as somebody who was going to communicate clearly and honestly to a straightforward question,” Stiller said.
Synergy in the Wrong Direction
By 2018, ECU faced a new problem—declining enrollment.
During Staton’s first two years as chancellor, in 2016 and 2017, enrollment had set records, growing to 29,131 students. As fall 2018 approached, leaders hoped to hit 30,000. Instead, ECU’s numbers dropped by 413 students, which meant a loss of millions in tuition, fees, and state funding.
Speaking to the Faculty Senate that September, Staton offered explanations. One was a positive development: ECU’s graduation rates were rising, so students were spending fewer semesters enrolled.
But he also suggested ECU was being outcompeted. Other UNC System campuses, with new goals to increase enrollment of rural and low-income students, had begun recruiting more aggressively from ECU’s traditional student pool. Three UNC System schools—Western Carolina, UNC Pembroke, and Elizabeth City State University—were also offering bargain $500-a-semester tuition rates through the NC Promise Tuition Plan. He speculated they were drawing potential ECU students.
ECU needed to recruit more students west of I-95, Staton told faculty. “We are going to have to do a better job of marketing Greenville, North Carolina, as a great college town.”
Greenville, with a population of about 95,000, is indeed a growing city in Pitt County. It has a riverside park, greenways, farm-to-table restaurants, and plans to transform a former tobacco warehouse district into a high-tech research and innovation hub with residential, office, and retail space.
But the 2018 enrollment drop suggested bigger issues. ECU doesn’t have the advantage of schools such as UNC Wilmington and Appalachian State, which attract students with their beach and mountain locales. Many of ECU’s students come from Eastern North Carolina counties that are losing population. Nearby Bertie, Edgecombe, Martin, and Craven counties, for instance, lost a total of more than 10,000 people from 2010 to 2019, according to U.S. census numbers.
And most of North Carolina’s population growth is in urban areas. Mecklenburg and Wake counties added some 400,000 residents—more than 40 percent of the state’s growth—between 2010 and 2019.
Owen Furuseth, an ECU alumnus and retired UNC Charlotte geography professor, suspects his alma mater is in for long-term demographic challenges. “I think there’s a lot of synergy, in a bad way,” he says.
A “Change Agent” Gets Involved
As if the dossier, football controversies, and enrollment decline weren’t enough, Staton had also drawn the critical eye of Harry Smith, who became chairman of the UNC System Board of Governors in 2018.
Smith, a businessman with a leadership style that might be described as relentless, was another ECU alumnus. He’d grown up in a small farming community in Johnston County, southeast of Raleigh. He went into sales at an air filter company in Washington, North Carolina, ascended to CEO, and made the company profitable. When it sold, he made millions.
Smith had joined the board knowing little about the state’s higher education system. Smith told Business North Carolina that when state Senate Leader Phil Berger asked him in 2012 to serve on the UNC System Board of Governors, he didn’t know what the body was.
But like most Board of Governors members, Smith had been a loyal donor to Republican candidates. From 2000 to 2018, he gave more than $200,000 to Republican candidates and causes, according to North Carolina State Board of Elections records. He also gave $1 million to his alma mater for a basketball training facility. Once on the board, he described himself as a change agent, committed to cutting wasteful spending, among other things.
The board, considered the state’s most powerful appointed body, hires chancellors and makes policy for North Carolina’s 16 public universities. Traditionally, it’s supposed to stay out of campus issues, leaving those to trustees and chancellors.
After Republicans won control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, however, they reshaped the 24-member body, cleansing it of Democrats. The board became less diverse, with mostly white male members. Some were eager to wade into campus issues, a move that has drawn widespread criticism, including from the university system’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
After Staton’s hire, Smith plunged into campus affairs almost immediately. In an email to two Board of Governors members and ECU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, he said he’d spotted a deal that “could be a massive opportunity” for the university—an apartment complex about three miles from campus, next to a campus recreational complex. The apartments were in receivership and selling at a low price. Smith suggested that ECU could buy them, or he could buy them, then lease them to ECU for student housing and split the profits, according to 2016 emails between Smith and ECU officials.
Smith’s involvement raised conflict-of-interest questions, and ECU officials ultimately concluded the deal wouldn’t work. The apartments were too far from campus. To fill them, the school would have needed to require students to live in them. “I think it’s a colossally bad deal that makes no sense for us,” ECU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance told Staton in an email.
Smith eventually dropped the idea, but he didn’t go away. In one email to ECU officials, he asked about a campus recreation facility that he suspected was an underused boondoggle. Why was it so far from campus? How much did it cost? “I want to see a detailed utilization report currently how many of our students are utilizing it today. I’m still scratching my head on how this happened, why and who is responsible for we have surely in my opinion hung a liability around ECU. I want the detail,” Smith wrote.
Stiller, who, as ECU’s faculty chair, met regularly with Staton, recalls him sharing frustrations about his dealings with Smith, ECU trustees, and the system’s governing board. “It was clear there was tension. He got caught in the middle of decisions he hadn’t had a part in.” Stiller says. “He would make comments: ‘I had a bunch of things on my agenda, but I spent the morning on the phone with Harry Smith.’”
Smith, who declined to comment for this story, didn’t keep his criticism of ECU private. He voiced it on Pirate Radio.
In 2018, for instance, he weighed in on a dispute over where the chancellor should live. The ECU Foundation had halted a plan to renovate Dail House, the historic chancellor’s residence on the edge of campus. Instead, the foundation bought a $1.3 million house three miles away. Smith said he’d opposed the purchase and thought it was a mistake.
“I had a perception of how the general public would view that particular residence,” Smith told Pirate Radio’s Dreyfus. “My view on that was more toward aristocracy. I mean, this is a public school system. … Thirty percent of our retention issues are kids who can’t afford college anymore. … What kind of messages do we send?”
By 2019, Staton’s days were rumored to be numbered. Trustees had tried to save him with a vote of confidence. Supporters—more than 130 alumni and others—signed a letter on his behalf.
But many people had soured on him, including Dreyfus, who was calling out, on the air, what he saw as poor leadership. “I had never seen the morale on campus as low as it was when Cecil Staton was here,” he says.
Professors followed the news with mixed feelings. Many weren’t Staton fans, but they resented meddling by the Board of Governors, particularly by Harry Smith. Some felt Staton never got the chance to grow into the job. In the end, some voiced support for the embattled chancellor, “including me,” Popke says. “He may be a really bad chancellor, but he’s our bad chancellor.”
In March 2019, Staton resigned under pressure, leaving with a $589,700 settlement. Afterward, UNC Board of Governors member Steven Long released a statement praising Staton and blaming Smith for a “long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks.” He described Smith’s actions toward the chancellor as an “irrational personal vendetta.”
Staton, now president of the Atlanta-based Asian American Hotel Owners Association, declined to be interviewed for this story. His 2020 defamation lawsuit against the UNC System, Smith, and others echoed Long’s language, accusing Smith of carrying out an irrational vendetta that damaged his reputation. Defendants have denied the allegations.
Observers have noted the political optics of this fray. Nearly everyone involved—governing board members, trustees, the chancellor himself—are Republicans, all battling each other.
An Unsustainable Model
When Staton exited in 2019, he left behind an athletics program that couldn’t cover its expenses. Like most NCAA Division I athletics programs, ECU’s program doesn’t generate enough revenue to be self-sufficient. But historically, with the help of student fees and philanthropy, it has operated “at or near breakeven,” according to a 2019 audit of ECU’s Athletics Department.
Athletics deficits had begun growing, however, after ECU left Conference USA in 2014, a move that coincided with higher expenses and plunging revenues as Pirate football floundered.
In 2018-19, for example, the athletics program had operating expenses and debt payments of about $45 million but brought in less than $35 million, leaving a $10.1 million deficit. The program brought the shortfall down to $8.5 million in 2019-20. After the pandemic forced the school to cancel games and limit attendance, however, ECU estimates its 2020-21 athletics deficit will be $20 million.
ECU has been keeping athletics afloat by transferring funds from other areas, including vending, operating reserves, and auxiliary areas such as parking, dining, and student housing. In May, a university committee summed up ECU’s predicament on the first page of its report: “The reality is the fiscal model for ECU Athletics was not sustainable prior to COVID-19.”
Athletics Director Jon Gilbert, who replaced Compher in 2018, has been trying to cut spending and increase revenue since he arrived. He attributes ECU’s deficits primarily to rising costs and declining football revenue. In 2011, season ticket sales had hit a high point of 22,830. But by 2018, they’d dropped to 12,908, according to athletics officials.
Grim revenue predictions extend to the school’s high-profile 2019 expansion of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium’s TowneBank Tower. The $60 million addition, which includes a press box and sky boxes, perches above the stands, making the stadium the tallest structure in Greenville. The tower was originally predicted to bring in $42.7 million over 30 years. Now, ECU projects it’ll lose nearly $6 million during that period.
The pandemic has accelerated budget cuts. Everyone in Gilbert’s department is taking furloughs or salary cuts. Gilbert took a $100,000 pay cut for at least a year. The school recently dropped two men’s teams—tennis, and swimming and diving.
ECU projects, starting in fiscal 2022, an annual athletics budget shortfall of at least $4 million “in perpetuity.” The remedy is still evolving, Gilbert says, because it’s difficult to craft a path forward amid a pandemic. He’s working to bring back season-ticket holders. Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations may allow fans to fill the football stadium once more this fall.
He also points out, however, that athletic deficits are a growing problem at many U.S. colleges dependent on football revenue to support non-revenue sports.
“I do think everyone in I-A athletics is questioning the sustainability of what we’re doing,” Gilbert says.
At ECU, even die-hard fans have come to view some athletics decisions as overreach. The stadium needed a new press box, John Bream says. It didn’t need a $60 million tower.
For Stiller, ECU’s determination to compete in the American Athletic Conference was a microcosm of its larger challenge. “We are striving for things we cannot get. We are striving, in Cecil’s words, for ‘horizons’—things we can’t reach. That encapsulates the whole problem—you can’t capture your horizon.”
ECU’s Board of Trustees is ultimately responsible for the direction of the Athletics Department. Neither ECU Board Chair Vern Davenport nor former chair Kieran Shanahan, who left in 2019, responded to emailed interview requests.
The State of the University
When Philip Rogers starts work on March 15 as ECU’s new chancellor, he’ll find a quiet campus, its students masked and forbidden from the sorts of social gatherings that help define college life.
Navigating the pandemic will top his immediate agenda, he told me. COVID-19 cases have been manageable this semester, according to Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson. The school has added testing and reduced dorm density, learning from mistakes in the fall, when a surge of cases forced students to move out of residence halls just a couple weeks after moving in.
Mitchelson, formerly the school’s provost, has been praised for steady leadership since Dan Gerlach, the university system’s first interim chancellor appointment, resigned after a video showed him driving his car following a night that included drinking with students.
Rogers, ECU’s fifth leader since 2016, has said he hopes to break ECU’s cycle of “revolving chancellors.”
His chances look better than Staton’s were. Several controversial UNC Board of Governors members, including Harry Smith, have left the board. The system’s new president, Peter Hans, who arrived in August, is a Republican with Democratic friends and a deep bench of relationships across the state. And Rogers, who previously served as ECU’s chief of staff and legislative liaison, brings an understanding of UNC System politics and personalities that Staton lacked.
The new chancellor also has deep community roots. The son of a pastor, Rogers grew up in Greenville. His wife holds two degrees from East Carolina. When he talks about bringing “a listening ear and a servant’s heart” to the job, he sounds like a man with a calling.
In an interview, Rogers acknowledged ECU’s challenges, including the task of growing enrollment as Eastern North Carolina loses population. Applications are up this year. Still, while total UNC System enrollment has grown six percent since 2016, ECU’s enrollment has been flat over the same period, and the school is accepting a higher percentage of students to keep it steady. Over a decade, ECU’s acceptance rate has climbed from 69 percent to 88 percent.
Rogers says he sees an opportunity to serve “the post-traditional learner market”—people 25 and older who need to get or finish a degree. ECU would meet them where they are, likely by expanding online programs, he says. “For me, it’s an exciting opportunity. It may be one of the places in the institution where we can make the most difference.”
When ECU Pirates say they have a chip on their shoulder, it’s often because they don’t believe East Carolina gets the respect it deserves. They’re probably right. ECU’s research and creative activities have had global impact, and no other university does as much to improve health, education, and economic growth in Eastern North Carolina. As the university sends nurses, doctors, and dentists to underserved communities; connects student interns with rural businesses; and trains graduates for Eastern North Carolina’s growing pharmaceutical industry, it has never been more relevant.
While cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh struggle to increase the social mobility of their impoverished residents, ECU has been praised for its social mobility success. National groups, including the Carnegie Foundation, have honored East Carolina for its community engagement and contributions to the region’s economic prosperity.
Popke, who has taught at ECU for 22 years, says it’s a rewarding place to work. “That social mobility metric is a metric we’re quite proud of. You feel like you’re making a difference,” he says, adding that family members often come from all over to attend graduations. “Often, it’s the first person in the family who’s ever gotten a degree. This is genuine impact.”
No one touts ECU as America’s next great national university anymore. Instead, its leaders are embracing a mission statement that speaks to the school’s original purpose: “To be a national model for student success, public service, and regional transformation.”
Mitchelson repeated the statement in a recent virtual State of the University address. “I hope that’s in your heads, and in your souls, your hearts,” he told his audience.