The lawsuit filed by a former chancellor of the state’s fourth-largest public university against the UNC System took a turn last week.
In June, former Chancellor Cecil Staton filed a defamation lawsuit against UNC, former Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith and attorney Peter Romary. The case later added 10 other BOG members as defendants, including current Chairman Randy Ramsey.
The lawsuit contends Smith worked to make Staton’s life difficult during his tenure from 2016-18 in Greenville after the chancellor opposed a student housing transaction project involving Smith. The complaint also noted that Smith and/or Romary “prepared, published and disseminated” an anonymous report in 2017 that was harshly critical of Staton’s pre-ECU career and hiring.
The complaint also says that the report and an accompanying negative letter was also “prepared, published and disseminated” by Smith and/or Romary to search committee members at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, which was considering Staton for its top job in 2019. UNC failed to defend Staton from the attacks, despite its “responsibilities to protect UNC and its employees from harm,” according to Staton’s lawsuit.
After the lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court, an affidavit was filed on June 25 by Tracy Tuten, a former nine-year ECU marketing professor. She said, “I am the author of the [2017 report.] I wrote it in its entirety, based on publicly available information, in October 2017. No one else participated in the writing.”
Last week, another affidavit was filed, this time by R. William Funk, a Dallas executive search consultant who advised the Texas university on its search. Funk said he “counseled the committee to disregard the anonymous document as unverifiable, and the university’s chief legal counsel, Damon Derrick, concurred.” Funk said the former ECU chancellor was not among four candidates chosen as finalists and — contrary to a statement in Staton’s lawsuit — no one asked that he withdraw from consideration. “The search committee discussion made scant reference to the document … [and it] was not the driving force behind Cecil’s exclusion,” Funk wrote.
Phone calls and emails to Staton’s attorneys, Robert Elliot and Michael Elliot, of the Winston-Salem-based Elliot Morgan Parsonage law firm, were not immediately returned. Smith and Romary deny any wrongdoing, including preparing or sending the letter to the Texas university.
Staton announced his resignation from ECU in March 2019 despite strong support from the Greenville university’s governing board. He received a separation agreement of about $590,000. Ron Mitchelson, a longtime senior executive at the university, is interim chancellor as a search committee considers potential candidates.