On June 12, former East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton filed a lawsuit against the UNC System, alleging that a “misinformation campaign” by former Board of Governors chairperson Harry Smith led to his “pressured resignation” in March 2019. Here’s what you need to know.
Who is involved?
In addition to the UNC System, the lawsuit lists Smith, risk management and screening firm QVerity and QVerity partner and general counsel Peter Romary as defendants.
- Cecil Staton served as the 11th chancellor for ECU from 2016 to 2019. During his time as chancellor, Staton launched a $500 million branding and marketing campaign to boost awareness of ECU, over $200 million of which was raised during his tenure. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, during his tenure, Staton received criticism for a decline in athletics revenue, and for the ECU Foundation's purchase of a new chancellor's house for $1.3 million. Staton is currently the president and CEO of Asian American Hotel Owners Association, Inc., the largest hotel owners association in the country, a position he has held since November.
- Harry Smith joined the Board of Governors in 2013, and was its chairperson from 2018 until he resigned in September 2019 to focus on running his private equity firm. In an article from NC Policy Watch about Smith's decision to step down, he stated that the job had become overwhelmingly political. During his tenure as chairperson, he was known for frequent clashes with other Board members, the article states.Prior to joining the Board, Smith served as the CEO of Flanders Filters Corporation, a company that produces and distributes air filters.
- Peter Romary, a QVerity attorney based in Greenville, North Carolina, was hired in 2019 by former BOG member Tom Fetzer to conduct an investigation into then-interim ECU Chancellor Dan Gerlach, who was photographed drinking and dancing with students at local bars, while the UNC System conducted its own investigation. The move was criticized by current BOG Chairperson Randy Ramsey, and led to the Board’s Governance Committee drafting revisions to its ethics policies. Fetzer drew criticism from many Board members in 2018 for also interfering in the hiring process of Western Carolina University’s chancellor, during which he revealed the name and information of a candidate to QVerity.
A business proposal
Staton alleges in the lawsuit that Smith held a “vendetta” against him, which stemmed from a rejected business proposal.
Staton did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to email exchanges from 2016, Smith was involved in discussions with Rick Niswander, who served as ECU's vice chancellor for administration and finance, about potentially acquiring an apartment complex, formerly known as North Campus Crossing, for university housing.
In an email to Staton about the deal, Niswander said he declined to pursue for a number of reasons, including having to "artificially create demand” by requiring sophomores to live on campus and then housing some in the complex, which Niswander said was located 3 miles from ECU's campus.