Search firm returns fees collected in ECU chancellor’s hiring

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East Carolina University

Cecil Staton

An executive search firm paid to recruit East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton in 2016 has returned its $110,000 fee after UNC System officials criticized the consultants’ work over disputed past salary data.

System President Margaret Spellings notified the UNC Board of Governors of the transaction involving Oak Brook, Ill.-based Witt/Kieffer in a Feb. 28 letter. UNC provided the letter after requests from Business North Carolina.

Citing conversations with the board, Spellings said “there was clear agreement that WK’s performance on this search did not meet our expectations in terms of communications with the search consultant — having nothing to do at all with ECU’s Chancellor or the other candidates in the search.” No other details were provided.

UNC has barred any new search business with Witt/Kieffer, though it will allow its existing agreements to continue, Spellings said.

Witt/Kieffer returned the check to Spellings on Feb. 2 along with a letter from CEO Andrew Chastain that noted “our services did not meet the expectations of the [UNC System].” The search firm, which has about 10 U.S. offices, is involved in six searches for senior UNC administrators at campuses in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Durham and Pembroke, according to the company’s website.

While Spellings’ letter didn’t specify any reasons for the returned check, the matter involved inaccurate salary information for Staton’s previous posts in Georgia, according to three people familiar with the matter. He was hired at an annual salary of $450,000; his predecessor Steve Ballard earned $385,000 after receiving a $60,000 raise in his 12th and final year on the job. Staton is the third highest-paid chancellor in the system, trailing peers at N.C. State University and UNC Chapel Hill.

Before ECU, Staton’s previous job was interim president of Valdosta State University in Georgia, a post he held for two years. His annual pay at Valdosta was less than $300,000, according to published reports. He was a Georgia state senator from 2004-14 and previously started several businesses, including a radio-station company.

Under UNC System protocol, trustees of individual campuses submit their favored candidates to the president, who makes the final decision. Staton was the first chancellor selected by Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who took her post in March 2016. Staton’s hiring a month later was championed by a 17-member committee led by Raleigh banker Steve Jones and Raleigh attorney Kiernan Shanahan. The group’s liaison with Spellings was former UNC System governor Henry Hinton, a Greenville radio broadcaster. Hinton said last week he was unaware of the repayment to Witt/Kieffer.

Staton’s tenure in Greenville has included controversies, such as a 5-year employment contract extension in mid-2017 for embattled Athletic Director Jeff Compher; the declining fortune of ECU’s traditionally strong football program; the terms of a merger of ECU’s physician practices with Vidant Health; and the pending $1.3 million purchase of a new chancellor’s residence about three miles from the ECU campus. The ECU Foundation is buying  the property after university officials concluded it was too costly to renovate the 88-year-old chancellor’s home near campus. Staton said in January he is a “bystander” in the housing decision, which he called a distraction from ECU’s main focus.

Staton is leading ECU’s effort to raise $500 million; he told trustees last month that the campaign has raised $169 million so far. The university is widely viewed as among the most important economic drivers in eastern North Carolina with nearly 29,000 students and 5,800 faculty and staff.

ECU officials declined requests for comment about the Witt/Kieffer repayment last week, referring questions to Spellings’ office.

The search firm was hired last year to aid ECU’s recruitment of a successor for Rick Niswander, vice chancellor for administration and finance. Witt/Kieffer’s “knowledge of ECU through the chancellor search was a key ingredient, particularly because of the outcome of that search, which brought Chancellor Staton to us,” Provost Ron Mitchelson told the Greenville Daily Reflector last August.

 

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