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UNC Board of Governors Member Calls For Chairman's Ouster

Lisa Philip

A member of the UNC Board of Governors is calling for the ousting of the board’s chairman, Harry Smith, saying his continued leadership will further damage the state’s public university system.

Board member and Raleigh attorney Steve Long alleges Smith is the reason behind East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton’s upcoming departure, announced Monday, and former UNC System President Margaret Spellings’s departure earlier this year.

Long, like Smith, is a Republican and was voted onto the Board of Governors by the State Senate in 2017.

“[Smith] does not have a full-time job,” Long told WUNC on Tuesday. “He treats the UNC system as his full-time job, and he supplanted [Spellings] in managing the university [system]. He would call her five times a day, text or email 20 times a day. I mean, this is just not what a president of an organization wants from their board chair. And she had had it, and just went back to Texas.”

Smith did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Spellings announced her departure last October, less than four months after Smith was sworn in as chairman.

“We lost one of our greatest university administrators,” Long said. “She was extremely talented and was doing a very good job. But when Harry became chairman, it became untenable for her to stay.”

About Staton’s departure, Long said Smith became “obsessed” with undermining the ECU chancellor after he and the college’s trustees rejected a business deal in 2016 involving Smith’s purchase of a university apartment complex.

“I don’t think the public appreciates just how relentless Harry Smith has been,” said Long. “Margaret Spellings told me, virtually every conversation she’s had with Harry ended up with some discussion of ECU and his criticism of the leadership. And there are numerous Board of Governors members and Board of Trustees members who’ve had the same experience.”

Staton said at a news conference on Monday that he did not initiate his own departure. But the UNC system’s general counsel maintains that his termination as chancellor is a “resignation.”

According to Long, UNC System President Bill Roper asked Staton to step down. Long said in a public letter released on Monday that it was “an effort to end the long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks by Harry Smith.”

But Long told WUNC on Tuesday that he didn't think that effort would work.

“[Smith will] find somebody else to go after, I’m sure,” he said.

The Board of Governors as a whole has faced criticism in the past year, including from former board members and other higher education leaders, for alleged bad governance and for being too political. Smith has been accused of mismanagement in his role as chairman, especially with regards to East Carolina University.

The leader of that college's Board of Trustees, Kieran Shanahan, told the Greenville Daily Reflector last week, "You have a very hyperactive chairman on the Board of Governors that’s trying to micromanage a university."

Removing Smith as chairman would require a vote by two-thirds of the Board of Governors. Long said he doesn’t think the votes are there.

“I think it’s very frustrating that people look at what he has done and just sit back and accept it,” he said. “There have always been concerns. When [Smith] was elected, it was a big question whether President Spellings could put up with that. And obviously that didn’t happen. And until the rest of the Board of Governors decides to make a change, it’s going to continue.”

Lisa Philip is an occasional contributor to WUNC. Previously, she covered education for the station and covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers.
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