(I've updated this post three times below.)
To say it has been a turbulent not-even-a-year at East Carolina University would be putting it mildly.
Chancellor Cecil Staton left his job in May, pushed out after a tumultuous three years. His replacement, interim chancellor Dan Gerlach, resigned in October after more video of his night on the town in Greenville became public. Now, ECU's Board of Trustees appears to be in open revolt.
The board conflict came to light Jan. 25, when the UNC Association of Student Governments asked the UNC System's Board of Governors to investigate a claim that two ECU trustees were trying to influence the upcoming election for student body president at ECU — and not in favor of the incumbent. Remember: The Student Government Association president at ECU and all the other UNC System schools are also university trustees, with the same rights and responsibilities as the other 12 trustees appointed by the state House and Senate and Board of Governors.
The claim got the BOG's attention: A BOG committee will meet Wednesday afternoon "to consider complaints and potential sanctions under Section 200.7 of the UNC Policy Manual involving members of the ECU Board of Trustees," as stated in the meeting notice posted Monday. Section 200.7, by the way, is the "duties and responsibilities" section that governs the conduct of trustees.
Here's a timeline of events I've put together from media accounts and documents released by the UNC System that others have posted online and cited in coverage. There are four key people to know before we get started: ECU board chair Vern Davenport, ECU trustees Phil Lewis and Robbie Moore and ECU SGA President (and ECU trustee) Colin Johnson.
July 12, 2019: Davenport is elected chair of the ECU Board of Trustees on a 7-6 vote. Lewis and Moore back newly appointed trustee Angela Moss (who, coincidentally, was SGA president during her undergraduate years at ECU). Johnson votes for Davenport (though Lewis and Moore later say that they thought Johnson had planned to vote for Moss). The meeting is chaotic. According to the N&O, Moss argues that a trustee who had phoned into the meeting isn't eligible to vote because she isn't in the board room. The vote is delayed while trustees seek legal advice. The absent trustee, Leigh Fanning, drives to the meeting and later votes for Davenport.
Nov. 22: On a 12-1 vote, trustees approve a request to increase tuition and student fees for the 2020-21 academic year. The lone no vote came from Johnson, who said he's mostly concerned about a $50 annual increase in the athletics fee. ECU's student government previously disapproved the increase in the athletics fee.
Jan. 13, 2020: Lewis and Moore meet with an unnamed ECU student in hopes of recruiting that person to run against Johnson for the SGA presidency later this month. That conversation is recorded, and the UNC System has made public the 56-page transcript.
Jan. 18: Davenport and two other trustees write BOG member David Powers (who chairs the BOG committee that's meeting Wednesday). In that letter, the three trustees accuse Lewis and Moore of promising financial help and other support to a challenger to Johnson in the SGA election. If that student wins, Davenport and the other trustees (vice chair Fielding Miller and board secretary Vince Smith) write, that student would join Lewis and Moore "in what they described as a 'seven' member majority vote for the purpose of advancing their objectives including, but not limited to, electing a new Chair of the ECU Board of Trustees."
The letter also suggests more fallout from the board chair vote back in July: Because Johnson didn't vote for Moss, Lewis and Moore didn't support Johnson in his effort to oppose the hike in the athletics fee. "Yeah, we would've voted with (Johnson) for sure ..." Moore said at the Jan. 13 meeting, according to the transcript. "I wasn't going to support him. I mean, he — you gotta work together and we just want to see some change."
Jan. 20: Moore writes three letters to Powers in which he calls for Davenport and ECU trustees Max Joyner and Fielding Miller to be removed from the ECU board. Moore claims that Joyner allegedly used insider-y board knowledge to buy property in Greenville and accuses Davenport and Miller of forcing a Pitt County judge to resign from ECU's Board of Visitors. (The judge, Jeff Foster, was mentioned in the report put together by the law firm hired by the UNC System to investigate Dan Gerlach's night out in Greenville.) Joyner and Miller, by the way, both voted for Davenport in July.
Jan. 24: Lewis and Moore strike a more conciliatory tone in a letter to Powers. In that letter, they write that they thought they were acting in the best interest of the university but express "sincere regret" that they failed "to conduct our affairs in an honorable and transparent manner."
Jan. 25: The UNC Association of Student Governments comes out with its resolution at its meeting in Winston-Salem. That action pushes this dispute into the public eye.
Jan. 27: Four trustees — Angela Moss and three trustees who backed her for board chair — write their own letter to Powers saying that Davenport's request to remove Lewis and Moore was solely Davenport's idea. There was no board vote, they write, and no board discussion, so Powers should reject Davenport's request.
Feb. 3: The Board of Governors calls a meeting of its University Governance Committee for Wednesday that might or might not untangle this mess. According to the ECU student newspaper, Johnson on Monday sent a statement to students: “Let me be clear, what was discussed in this (Jan. 13) meeting is offensive and represents a clear attempt to interfere in the SGA elections process." The story also mentions an online petition, signed by close to 1,700 people as I write this, calling for the removal of Lewis and Moore.
Until the BOG meets Wednesday afternoon, here are a few stories to help get you caught up:
ECU trustees accused of offering money for student campaign to gain a voting ally (News & Observer, Feb. 3)
Several ECU BOT members call for resignations after SGA scandal (The East Carolinian, Feb. 3)
ECU Board of Trustees can do better (The East Carolinian editorial, Feb. 3)
ECU Trustee scandal heads to UNC Board of Governors committee (N.C. Policy Watch, Feb. 4)
Update, 4 p.m. Tuesday: The N&O follows up today with a strong story that digs into the Jan. 13 meeting between Lewis, Moore and the now-identified student, who ran for SGA president a year ago and has since left ECU:
"... one side says that the meeting was a setup, that the woman doesn’t attend ECU now and that she was instructed to attend and record the meeting under false pretense.
"The other side says this can’t be a setup because the two trustees initiated the contact in the first place and the recorded conversation shows they were trying to meddle in a student government election."
Update, 9:30 a.m. Wednesday: The N&O and Charlotte Observer editorial boards call on the BOG to remove both Lewis and Moore:
"They seem not to understand that the fundamental part of being a trustee is trust. An institution relies on its trustees’ judgment and integrity. Plotting against the board’s leadership and meddling in student government elections are the opposite of what Lewis and Moore took an oath to do."
The editorial also contains some strong words about the BOG, the UNC System and the legislature that appointed the BOG.
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