ECU’s turmoil reflects the politics of UNC’s leadership

In March 2018, Cecil Staton, then the chancellor of East Carolina University, said his goal was to make ECU “America’s next great national university.“ in a discussion with journalists at The News & Observer, he said, “This sleepy little school in Eastern North Carolina is not going to be a sleepy little school anymore,”

Well, he was half-right. ECU may be further today from being “America’s next great national university,” but it certainly hasn’t been a “sleepy little school.” The big-time wake up started with Staton’s resignation in June after three years amid a claim that he was forced out by then-UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, a claim Smith denied. However, Staton, a former Republican state lawmaker in Georgia, did irritate Republican legislative leaders by complaining about a lack of state funding for ECU.

Then President Trump came to campus in July for a rally and drew national attention by criticizing three congresswomen of color and eliciting the crowd to chant: “Send them back.”

This week brings another episode. ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach has been placed on administrative leave after visiting a bar near campus where video and photos show him drinking and dancing with young people. Gerlach said he was fraternizing with students to counter complaints that Staton was too aloof. Now Gerlach, who has said he is interested in being named ECU’s permanent chancellor, is wondering aloud if the photos and videos were sent out to the media as part of an effort by “somebody wanting to make me look bad and really show my judgment to be poor.”

How did it come to this? The answer has little to do with what happens in Greenville. ECU’s chancellor troubles can be traced to the General Assembly in Raleigh and to Chapel Hill, where the UNC Board of Governors meets.

When Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2011, their conquest was not quite complete. They wanted control of the University of North Carolina, a historic and nationally admired institution rich with jobs, influence and prestige. The takeover entailed stocking the university’s Board of Governors with Republicans, most of them qualified by virtue of their party fealty and donations. That was followed by the ousting of the university system’s president, Tom Ross, in 2015 because he was a Democrat. He was replaced by Margaret Spellings, a woman with strong Republican credentials as the former Secretary of Education in the administration of President George W. Bush.

What followed was the open politicization of the Board of Governors and the micromanaging of the 17-campus system to the point where key leaders are bailing out or being fired. Among the departed are Staton, Spellings, UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and, just last week, BOG chairman Smith, who stepped down, saying the job was “a tough gig.” (Randy Ramsey became the board’s new chairman on Tuesday.)

Now there will be politically charged situations as replacements are sought to lead UNC-CH, ECU and the university system. The politics, acrimony and meddling that created the vacancies will no doubt shrink the number of highly qualified candidates who want the jobs.

There’s little likelihood that Republicans will stop treating UNC’s leadership posts as political spoils and, in turn, spoiling UNC’s leadership. A correction will come only with an election that ends Republican control of the General Assembly. But a switch in parties will not be enough. Should Democrats regain control of the legislature, they should do more to insulate the Board of Governors and UNC chancellors from political influence and patronage. That could involve barring lobbyists from the Board of Governors and stipulating that the 24 members reflect political diversity and that each has a demonstrated interest in higher education.

Clearly requiring only that board members be good Republicans is not good enough.