April 27, 2016
The new chancellor of East Carolina University said Wednesday that he is committed to upholding and advancing ECU’s mission of student success, public service and regional transformation.
Cecil P. Staton, 58, was elected by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors at a special-called meeting in Chapel Hill on Wednesday afternoon. He will become the university’s 11th chancellor on July 1, filling the role that has been occupied by Steve Ballard since 2004.
Staton currently is the interim president of Valdosta State University in Georgia and has a long career in business, academia and as a state legislator in Georgia.
During his acceptance speech in Chapel Hill and a news conference on ECU’s campus later in the evening, Staton said there are a multitude of challenges facing institutions of higher education, including decreased funding, the effects of advancing technology, changing demographics and increased competition for students, but he believes ECU has the potential to overcome them and continue to grow.
“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,” he said. “I became convinced through this process that ECU understands the necessity to be an innovative institution that always, always puts students first.”
To overcome at least one of those challenges, Staton said he will be starting a “significant capital campaign” shortly after taking office to give the university a solid financial foundation.
Another priority will be expanding research opportunities.
“We want to see ECU becoming more significant in its research opportunities and the research resources involved in this university, and I think all that ties in nicely to the commitment of this university to regional transformation,” he said at the news conference. “We have the assets, we have a big responsibility here, we’ve got to stay focused on that.”
He said he plans to help increase the stature of ECU’s academic programs and raise the profile of the university on the national level while staying true to its commitment to serving the families of North Carolina, particularly those in the east.
“A lot of universities today, they really find their prestige in how many students they exclude, how many they reject,” he said. “I hope ECU is going to continue to be an institution that finds its success in not how many people we exclude, but how many people we include and how well they succeed.”
Staton’s salary will be $450,000. Ballard’s salary is $385,000. It was just increased from $322,000 in November by a vote of the Board of Governors.
At the time, the board cited a salary study conducted by Buck Consultants that found that the salaries of most senior leaders in the UNC system are below market rates, making it hard to recruit and retain top talent.
In response to the finding, the board adopted updated market ranges for chancellor salaries systemwide and set the minimum salary for the ECU position at $431,000.
Searching for a leader
Staton was chosen through a months-long search process conducted by the Chancellor Search Committee, a 15-person group composed of trustees, faculty members and other ECU leaders, as well as alumni and Vidant Health representatives.
A second body, the Leadership Working Group, was composed of representatives from ECU, its community partners and the student body. It set up public forums and helped the committee form a leadership statement, the document that was used to recruit candidates.
Search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Illinois, was hired to facilitate the process.
After holding several public meetings and forums to discuss the criteria for the candidates, the committee met in closed session twice to review applicants.
Board of Trustees Chair Steve Jones, who also chaired the Chancellor Search Committee, said 70 people applied for the position, 11 were chosen for face-to-face interviews and five were brought to visit ECU’s campus.
After the interviews, the committee recommended finalists to the Board of Trustees, which voted to submit three names to UNC System President Margaret Spellings for consideration. The vote presumably occurred during a special-called meeting on March 28.
Spellings chose Staton to nominate to the Board of Governors. She said during her nomination speech that his diverse background will serve the university well.
“Dr. Staton brings to the role of chancellor 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,” she said. “During a varied 30-year career, he has proven himself to be an energetic and effective leader who encourages strategic thinking, promotes collaboration and inclusiveness and understands the power of education to change lives, families and communities.”
Jones said at the BOG meeting that he was impressed with the pool of candidates the university had to choose from.
“North Carolina should be proud, eastern North Carolina should be proud of the quality of candidates we brought to campus and ultimately to President Spellings,” he said.
The road ahead
Faculty Chair John Stiller, who was a member of the search committee, said he looks forward to getting Staton acquainted with instructors.
“We have a really strong leadership team here at ECU and a tremendous tradition of shared governance,” he said. “As chair of the faculty, I’m enthusiastic about helping the new chancellor come in and become part of that team and learn all about the intricacies and nuances of ECU and help further build that community.”
He said the faculty will need to collaborate with Staton to find solutions to the issues facing the university, including stagnant staff and faculty salaries, which make it difficult to recruit and retain top employees, and the North Carolina Guaranteed Admission Program, known as NCGAP.
NCGAP was created by the General Assembly to divert UNC system-bound students to community colleges for their first two years. It aims to reduce costs for the system and families, but universities, including ECU, have expressed concerns that it would slow students down and negatively impact minority, low-income and first generation college students.
Because of a confidentiality agreement signed by all the members of the search committee, Stiller said he was unable to say why Staton was the best candidate for the job.
Student Body President Ryan Beeson, a first-year graduate student, said he had the opportunity to meet Staton as part of the interview process and was impressed. Beeson said he hopes to work with Staton on issues that affect students, including how to keep students in eastern North Carolina after they graduate.
“I really do believe we found the right leader,” he said. “My hope is that all the students and everyone in Pirate Nation will welcome him with open arms.”
Staton said the university’s assets put it in a position to meet those challenges head-on.
“I am here today because I believe East Carolina University can and will provide leadership while responding to the challenges facing public higher education,” he said. “While the waters of change may be shifting beneath our feet, at East Carolina University, we will remain committed to finding the next generation of solutions.”
At the Wednesday evening press conference, Staton was asked about two timely issues — a March 17 assault that ended on ECU’s campus and a controversial law passed by the General Assembly known as House Bill 2.
Campus police are complying with a request by Pitt County’s district attorney to withhold video of the assault, which resulted in several arrests and the dismissal of an ECU police officer. Staton said both transparency and cooperating with police investigations are important.
“We’re going to make sure our students do have an environment where they feel safe,” he said. “If we have some issues regarding policies and procedures, that’s something we can certainly work on to make sure we’re in better shape going forward.”
In regard to House Bill 2, which requires people to use public bathrooms based on biological gender rather than gender identity and prevents local governments from passing protections for LGBTQ people, Staton said he is committed to making ECU a place where all students are treated with respect, but did not give an opinion about the legislation itself.
“Let me be clear: Today I was elected chancellor-elect of East Carolina University. I was not elected to the North Carolina General Assembly,” he said.
Just last month, Staton wrote a letter to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal urging him to veto state legislation that would permit concealed weapons on public college campuses. Staton said that was an instance in which the governor specifically sought feedback from university leaders, and it was an issue that Staton was involved in during his time in the state senate.
He said the chancellor’s role in the political process should be as an advocate for the university and the UNC system.
“I think we will always speak on what we believe is in the best interest of our faculty and our staff and more importantly our students, and that’s something I pledge to do,” he said.
Staton said standing up for what’s right for the university and the region is a focus shared by all the ECU leaders he met during the interview process, and it was that passion that drew him to the university.
“The love for ECU that I heard in their voices and saw in their eyes and in the expressions upon their faces frankly was contagious and it certainly contributed to our willingness to consider this journey and to accept the invitation to unite with you in the noble cause of advancing the heritage of excellence that is reflected in every facet of East Carolina University.”