Late last month, when Cecil Staton—Republican politician, religious scholar, businessman and right-wing book publisher—was named the future chancellor of East Carolina University, the news came and went with little reaction from most North Carolinians.
Staton, one of the first major university appointments under controversial new UNC system President Margaret Spellings, was hailed as a celebrated academic with an Oxford degree, a successful entrepreneur, a vaunted academic fundraiser and a “cheerleader” for higher education at his former home in Georgia.
But, based on a N.C. Policy Watch investigation, Staton’s past is more complicated and, apparently, much more bizarre than that.
During his decade-long stint in the Georgia state Senate, Staton was perhaps the legislature’s leading proponent for voter ID laws. He was also a consistently hard-line, conservative lawmaker, backing expansive worker citizenship checks and police crackdowns condemned as anti-immigrant by many advocates.
Voter ID reform was the first bill he authored in the chamber, one likened to a “poll tax” by a federal judge. And, following its approval in 2005 and subsequent implementation after years of litigation, Staton’s legislation has become a model for Republican-led voting reforms in dozens of other states, including North Carolina.
It’s a conservative-led reform that critics say was aimed primarily at suppressing turnout among young, elderly and minority voters, a bloc that overwhelmingly skews Democratic.
Staton’s also the founder of a pair of publishing companies; one that caters to Christian readers and another to the conservative right. Staton can count former GOP presidential hopefuls Herman Cain and Rick Perry among the published authors at his Stroud & Hall Publishers, Inc.
And, strangely, Staton was embroiled in a puzzling email scandal during a state GOP flap in 2011 that spurred his temporary ouster as majority whip, a position that made him among the most powerful Republicans in the state.
The scandal, according to media reports and Georgia political observers who spoke to Policy Watch, centered around allegations that Staton used an anonymous email address and a fake name to bombard lawmakers and pundits with attacks on his political rival, Republican Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
After reports surfaced that the emails’ purported author, an unknown woman named “Beth Merkleson,” could not be tracked down, one GOP party activist publicly claimed he had connected Internet activity from both Merkleson and Staton’s email accounts to the same IP address. The activist also claimed that, during one email exchange with Merkleson, the author accidentally signed off as Staton once.
Days later, Staton denied the accusations but reportedly stepped down from his top party position for the remainder of the legislative session, claiming he did not want to be a “distraction,” even as critics lampooned him online (here’s a now-defunct site, courtesy of an Internet archives page, that includes a photoshopped “missing” poster for Merkleson with Staton’s face).
All of this from a newly-appointed, relatively unknown figure in North Carolina expected to assume a high-paying, nonpartisan position at one of the state’s largest institutions of higher education.
“This is very troubling, that an appointee to lead a major state-supported university in North Carolina has more experience in voter suppression and attempting to undermine the constitution than furthering education,” says Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP.
Barber was one of many to tell Policy Watch that Staton, while he may boast a combination of business and academic expertise, carries with him significant political baggage, something that’s unusual for a nonpartisan position like chancellor.
Spellings did not agree to Policy Watch interview requests to discuss Staton’s hiring last week; nor did Staton, who will pull in an annual salary of $450,000, a major bump from his predecessor, current ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, who earns more than $322,000 a year.
When he assumes leadership at ECU in July, Staton will be the third highest-paid chancellor in North Carolina, according to state records, lagging only the N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill chancellors, both of whom earn an annual salary of $520,000.
Yet, despite his steep pay, the former Georgia lawmaker’s political history seems widely unknown at the university and in the UNC system at large, even among those who voted to confirm Spellings’ nomination, Policy Watch has found.
Reached last week, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette indicated he knew little of the chancellor-elect’s legislative career, specifically his support for voter ID reforms and 2011’s bizarre email scandal.
“From what you’re telling me, I don’t know enough about it to really comment,” Bissette said. “But people have different opinions on voter ID legislation.
“I’m more interested in the overall recommendation of our search committee and our president than going back and picking any one thing. I do think he has broad experience, which is what the board is looking for.”
Staton’s appointment, Bissette explained, was led by a search committee at ECU and Spellings. The university committee, adhering to statutory guidelines for chancellor appointments, narrowed a list of candidates to a handful of finalists. Spellings interviewed the finalists and made her recommendation to the board.
And the president’s nomination is typically approved, Bissette said, “unless there’s something unusual” about the nomination. In this case, Bissette said he heard nothing that led him to believe Staton would not be a natural fit.
After all, he was an Oxford-trained businessman with teaching and administrative experience in Georgia. Before his time in the Georgia state Senate, Staton was also an associate professor and associate provost at Mercer University from 1991 through 2003, leading faculty research initiatives at the Georgia private school.
During his time in the Georgia state house years later, Staton would help to funnel millions of public dollars to the decorated private university.
Shortly after Staton’s announcement in early 2014 that he would not seek re-election in the Georgia legislature, he became a vice chancellor leading international education projects for the state’s 29-campus, public university system.
Today, he’s also the interim president of Valdosta State University, a public university in Georgia with less than 12,000 students. Staton accepted the Valdosta job last April.
In an April News & Observer report on his naming as ECU chancellor, Spellings credited Staton with reversing declining enrollment figures and fundraising at the small, public university.
Staton, meanwhile, reportedly touted himself as the “chief cheerleader for higher education” in the Georgia legislature, emphasizing his passion for innovation in higher education.
But to some, Staton’s hiring is just the latest evidence that Spellings, a former George W. Bush-era education reformer for the GOP, and the UNC system’s Board of Governors, restocked with conservative leaders appointed by the legislature, pursue an ideological, rather than an academic, agenda.
“We know Ms. Spellings was a political appointee who has had nothing really to do with advancing academia,” says Barber. “Now it seems birds of a feather flock together.”
Amanda Klein is stunned.
Klein, an associate professor in ECU’s Department of English and a leader in one local faculty rights group, says Cecil Staton is an enigma to ECU faculty.
Staton’s confirmation in April completed a process dogged by complaints from UNC faculty that it lacked “transparency” at the university, she says. Meanwhile, Staton’s political history was never publicly broached when leaders with the UNC Board of Governors unanimously tapped Margaret Spellings’ pick last month.
Last week, Klein said Staton’s support for voter ID should be “very concerning” to faculty at ECU, particularly given similar voter ID reforms, like the one passed in North Carolina in 2013, nixed students’ right to use college IDs to identify themselves at voting places, a move that complicated voting for a group that tends to vote overwhelmingly to the left.
“There isn’t a voter fraud issue in this country,” says Klein. “It’s an invented problem to control the vote. Having said that, will it impact how he runs ECU? I would hope not. I would hope his personal opinions would not come into play.”
Meanwhile, Staton’s pay is already a sore spot at ECU, Klein says. His appointment comes at a pivotal time for the Greenville university. Faculty leaders have long complained of stagnant wages, pay cuts and vanishing cost-of-living adjustments. Klein says some ECU instructors earn “poverty-level” wages.
“When you feel like you’re doing this work for very little and other people are getting these resounding, inflated raises, it’s just very demoralizing,” says Klein. “People are very upset on campus. It’s rough.”
Meanwhile, none of the accolades lobbed at Staton comforted the longtime state and university leaders who spoke to Policy Watch about the new chancellor-elect last week.
“I know this certainly wouldn’t fly in Chapel Hill,” says James Moeser, who served as chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2000 to 2008. Prior to that, Moeser was chancellor for four years at the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln.
This week, Moeser, who’s now a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Policy Watch that he found Staton’s background “concerning.”
Moeser is a progressive who’s been much more outspoken about his politics since stepping down as chancellor. Indeed, he publicly decried the state’s ultra-controversial House Bill 2 last month.
But Moeser said he’s never criticized Spellings’ appointment as system president, chiefly because previous presidents such as Bill Friday and Erskine Bowles were well-known political operatives for the Democratic Party.
“One would expect a Republican-dominated board to want a Republican president,” said Moeser.
But that logic does not apply to university chancellors, he says, academic positions that should balance campus, faculty and student needs in a nonpartisan way.
“You want someone on campus with exemplary academic credentials and you don’t want someone seen as a political operative,” Moeser said.
Moeser added that he’s particularly worried about Staton’s background as a champion for voter ID, legislation that he says is “clearly intended to suppress minority votes and college student votes.”
“I imagine this will create a headwind for him,” adds Moeser.
NAACP President Barber, an outspoken opponent of North Carolina’s voter ID law, skewered the university system last week when he learned about Staton’s past, chiding Spellings and the Board of Governors for what he deemed a politically-motivated appointment.
Spellings “has decided with one of her first appointments to put politics over principle and appoint someone who has a record of tearing down and working to undermine voting rights, alongside promoting an extreme political agenda,” Barber said.
Altha Cravey is an associate professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, and another critic of the university system’s new GOP-dominated Board of Governors.
Cravey said she was already alarmed by Staton’s salary and the “secretive” process that sped his approval by the Board of Governors last month. But Cravey said she, and many of the board’s other protesters, knew nothing of his tumultuous political history.
Cravey said there are “several dangers” associated with hiring politicians such as Staton in top academic positions.
“They don’t understand what we do,” said Cravey. “There’s too much of a learning curve. They don’t appreciate the breadth of scholarship and why it matters, particularly in liberal arts and public education.
“And third, they don’t really understand how universities work and how they’ve been successful over the years, working with input from faculty, the board, administration and students. That’s a very successful model.”
Cravey says Staton’s hiring mirrors a national trend, in which more and more often, higher education leaders are looking outside of academia, particularly toward the political and corporate sphere, for new positions.
“They want to argue that it’s the Republican Party’s turn,” says Cravey. “They clearly have something in mind.”
Klein says such a trend isn’t good for universities, particularly one struggling with worker equity issues such as ECU.
“The fact that (Staton) has a background in the private sector does make me nervous,” says Klein. “I think that’s how we got into this whole mess. You can’t treat education like a product. Universities don’t work like that.”
Meanwhile, none of this—not Staton, not the politically-minded leadership of the Board of Governors, nor Spellings’ controversial politics—is news to Madeleine Scanlon.
Scanlon, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill grad, was one of the few who spoke out when Staton was hired last month, castigating the Board of Governors in social media posts.
The shift in tone at the university’s system governing board has long alarmed Scanlon, who was one of four arrested during a protest of Spellings’ hiring at a Board of Governors meeting in January.
She tells Policy Watch that it’s “nothing personal” with Staton or Spellings, but North Carolinians should be “disturbed” by Staton’s appointment.
“He’s the wrong choice for ECU chancellor. Why can’t they have picked someone with a long history in academics and a scandal-free career instead of a reputed political operative who hasn’t been above board in accomplishing his political objectives?”
Scanlon says any North Carolina chancellor should be pushing for in-state tuition for undocumented students and that they should be aggressively encouraging civic participation among students, not backing voter ID legislation that effectively does the opposite for college students.
“It’s deeply concerning to me because his voting record is contradictory to the needs of students and workers, especially students of color and low-income people who need our public universities to stay public, to stay accessible.”
Scanlon also took aim at Staton’s 2011 email controversy, arguing that, if the allegations are true, it suggests a “lack of integrity.”
“In this political climate, the way it is now in North Carolina, he could probably say horrendous things without using a fake email address and still earn points with Republican voters,” she added.
To critics like Scanlon, Staton’s appointment is emblematic of a university board that seems more driven by politics than academics. Last week, Moeser told Policy Watch that the political climate in the university system is “disappointing.”
“Even when Democrats controlled the General Assembly, the Board of Governors was essentially nonpartisan, although Democrats always had the majority,” Moeser said. “It wasn’t about politics. It seems to have become that way with this board.”
Student and faculty advocacy groups, like the Faculty Forward Network, of which Prof. Cravey is a member, frequently protest the board’s meetings these days. Cravey says the new GOP leadership on the board has followed a more “top-down” method of leadership in the university system, eschewing dialogue with faculty, students and community members.
To Cravey, Spellings’ hiring was the culmination of the board’s political agenda, and Staton’s nomination is further confirmation of the board’s political bias.
It’s widely known that the 2015 ouster of Tom Ross, the UNC system’s former president, now a fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, was a major controversy for the UNC system.
Ross, a Democrat and the former leader of the progressive Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, stepped down in January after he was reportedly forced out by the Board of Governors. Yet Ross had a reputation amongst many observers for nonpartisan, steady leadership of the UNC system.
In addition to Ross’ abrupt departure and the move to hire Spellings, the board also rankled progressives last year when it stripped funding from campus groups with anti-poverty or socially progressive missions—such as the former Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill—citing financial reasons.
“Politicization doesn’t seem like strong enough of a word for what they’re doing,” says Cravey. “It’s a radical takeover of something that belongs to everybody in North Carolina.”
In an interview with Policy Watch last week, Ross declined to talk about Staton’s hiring, claiming he did not want to “second-guess his successor.” However, the former UNC president cautioned that critics shouldn’t be too quick to pounce on Spellings or Staton.
“I don’t think the fact that someone doesn’t come from (an entirely academic) background is necessarily a bad thing,” Ross said, adding that, during his tenure, he sought a “diverse” group of chancellors, hailing from both the academic and business worlds.
And, despite all the criticism, Bissette, the Board of Governors chair, says he and the board are simply doing their job, particularly when it comes to Staton’s hiring, which he described as a “credible” recommendation from the ECU search committee and Spellings.
“I’m very confident that Dr. Staton will do an excellent job at East Carolina,” says Bissette.
“I’ve been around for a very long time. I’ve been the mayor in Asheville. If someone went back in my long and sordid career, I’m sure they could find things they don’t agree with too. I try to take a broader perspective.”
Today, though, ECU workers like Klein don’t care about politics. They simply want a fair shake for East Carolina workers, she says, and there’s much work for Staton to do to convince skeptical university faculty like Klein that he’s the man for the job.
“There’s no one at ECU that feels optimistic about the things that are happening. For the people who are teaching, giving public service, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no promise.”