By Doug Boyd
The thing about Cecil Staton is that no matter how you try, you just can't pin him down into one column.
Is he an academic or an entrepreneur?
A politician or an administrator? A moderate scholar or a conservative legislator?
"It's hard to get me in a box, though people try to do that," East Carolina University's new chancellor says on one of his early visits to campus before he took office July 1. "My wife tells our sons, 'Your father gets bored easily.'
I hope that's not true. Nevertheless…," and he moves on to another topic.
As ECU's 11th chancellor, he's taking the helm at a time of uncertainty in numerous areas from legislative funding to the future of ECU's medical school. Thus, a conversation with him covers a lot of topics, but one thread runs through them all.
"It's important to dream it up and have a vision," says Staton, 58. That vision includes raising several hundred million dollars in a capital campaign, getting the Brody School of Medicine on solid ground, boosting research dollars and more. "I see no virtue in mediocrity. I see ECU as being on a great trajectory. I think it's on the cusp of being a nationally prominent university."
From a mill town to Oxford
To see how Staton arrived in Greenville, North Carolina, you must look to Greenville, South Carolina. In the 1960s, the upstate city wasn't all that different from ECU's Greenville of the same era, except instead of tobacco farms and giant leaf warehouses, textile mills dominated the economy. Staton grew up within sight of one.
His father was born in the town and operated Cecil's Shoe Repair. His mother, now in her 80s, has worked in the mortgage business for more than 40 years.
He graduated from Carolina High School and enrolled at nearby Furman University-the first in his immediate family to attend a university. Meeting with ECU students in April the day after he was named chancellor, he described himself as a conservative Baptist walking onto a college campus near the end of the Vietnam War and hearing things about his country that didn't sit right with him.
"It made me think about what I believe," he said to the students. "It made me think about my opinions. It made me a stronger person."
Calling himself "a late bloomer," Staton completed his religion degree at Furman, then earned master of theology and master of divinity degrees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and a doctorate in Old Testament, Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern studies from the University of Oxford in England.
He then began his academic career at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia, where he was an assistant professor of religion from 1989-91. Staton also served as associate provost, associate professor and university publisher at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
He also started and led three communications companies: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, a publisher of books and curriculum products; Stroud and Hall Publishers, a publisher of books on politics and current events; and Georgia Eagle Media, a holding company for broadcasting, newspaper and media properties.
Mike Dyer is president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and Macon Economic Development Commission. He worked with Staton on some large-scale projects.
"Cecil is a good businessman, very bright and passionate about his beliefs and values," Dyer said in an email. "Additionally, he is a hard worker and committed to his causes."
To politics and back
In 2004, Staton was elected to the Georgia Senate representing Macon and its surrounding area. His legislative career is wide-ranging and generally falls on the conservative side of issues. But some of his work sheds light on how he might lead ECU and deal with issues facing the university.
For example, he chaired a study committee that looked into the shortage of doctors and nurses in the state. Among its recommendations were increasing the number of medical and nursing students, urging the federal government to raise the number of medical residency slots, protecting the 1,000 residency slots at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and expanding doctoral programs in nursing. This year, 72 new residency positions opened in the state.
He worked to establish the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission that would fund hospitals with trauma centers partly through different taxes and surcharges. Grady Hospital, one of the nation's busiest trauma centers, nearly closed in 2007 due to financial straits, and the trauma network was seen as one way to help.
"It wasn't a popular thing to do from my political background," he says. "Republicans weren't ready to bail out a hospital that didn't serve their constituents."
Dr. Leon Haley, Emory School of Medicine's executive associate dean of clinical services for Grady Memorial Hospital, worked with Staton as the commission was being developed. In 2007, he was chief of emergency medicine and deputy chief medical officer at Grady and says supporting trauma at that time meant supporting Grady.
"Even just trying to figure out how to get all the people together…shows his ability to be collaborative and work hard to find a funding source," Haley says. "Sen. Staton was very instrumental in getting that group together."
In 2012, he sponsored legislation that increased the borrowing cap for construction on technical college and university campuses from $300 million to $500 million. The legislation passed.
After he left the Senate in 2014 and was the Georgia university system's vice chancellor for extended education, the system waived mandatory student fees for active duty service members using military tuition-assistance programs to attend institutions within the system.
And earlier this year while interim president at Valdosta State University, he opposed a bill that would have allowed concealed carry of firearms by licensed owners on state college and university campuses. Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure in May.
At VSU, Staton was faced with a near-crisis when he was tapped last summer to take over and get things back in shape. Enrollment had dropped almost 12 percent from a high of 13,089 students in 2011. Credit hour production had fallen, which reduced the school's funding.
Staton set to work cutting the school's budget-in the process eliminating about 30 faculty positions-and began a marketing campaign to recruit new students. He refocused VSU on student retention and success.
Not all his moves were popular, but nearly a year later, admissions had grown 22 percent, or 1,700 students, according to his state of the university address in April. A capital campaign that began before Staton arrived on campus raised $16 million during the fiscal year.
"I went there more or less to be a fixer," Staton says. He's aiming to do more at ECU.
A new Greenville
On a July morning a week into his tenure at ECU, Staton addresses a group of students and parents during orientation.
"A university's a very interesting place," he tells the crowd at Wright Auditorium. "Look around you. You're going to meet a lot of different people while you're here at ECU."
Different people, different backgrounds, different outlooks, different dreams.
"That's what college is all about, and that's what the world is all about," he says.
He talks a bit more, then makes a promise to the students.
"We're going to have a great freshman year together," he says.
Students say they like his down-to-earth demeanor. He chats with them most mornings while in line at a campus coffee shop.
"He's definitely someone you could have a conversation with and not even realize he's the chancellor," says senior Emily Schultz of Delaware, a communication major who worked as an orientation assistant during the summer.
Fellow senior Brittney DeWitte, a senior from Cary, says she hopes the new chancellor can make good on his goals of growing ECU and expanding its reputation.
"Even in the past three years I've been here, we've seen tremendous growth in the reputation of our campus," she says. "It adds value to our degrees."
"ECU doesn't get enough credit," adds Schultz.
Staton has a solid starting point for what he wants to accomplish.
"ECU is in a good place," he says. Administrators and trustees have worked through budget cuts by streamlining operations and academic programs, but there's still work to do in the areas of faculty salaries and stabilizing the finances of the medical school. That work in large part will depend on decisions made in the Legislature. Thus, he says, continuing to build relationships with lawmakers and educating them about the uniqueness of Brody are vital.
"They don't come to the position with an intimate knowledge of all the issues of the day you have to vote on," he says, recalling his own legislative experiences.
By design, Brody's tuition is low, and it doesn't own a hospital that could help bridge revenue gaps. In addition, legislators have cut its budget and reduced two of the ways the school collected revenue.
Nevertheless, Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Phyllis Horns likes what she heard in her first conversations with Staton and sees a promising future for campus. Staton, she says, is committed to the mission of the medical school and the other health sciences programs to provide health care professionals for the state and improve the health status of eastern North Carolinians. She also says the new chancellor has expressed support for growing the Department of Public Health into a School of Public Health.
"He talks about promises made, promises kept, and our data are demonstrable in that regard," she says. "I'm feeling a great deal of enthusiasm for him and how we can work at ECU and take steps to advance the health care workforce in eastern North Carolina. We're going to grow."
ECU will also continue its relationship with Vidant Health, which owns ECU's primary teaching hospital and is in the process of merging its medical group practice with ECU's.
"With his experience, dedication and understanding of the issues that we face in eastern North Carolina, I am confident that he will lead the university to great success," says Michael Waldrum, CEO of Vidant Health. "He has experience in the health sciences and a passion to grow our programs to meet the needs of our great state."
Terrence Campbell, who's in his final year of dental school, was one of the students who met with Staton in April. Afterward, he said Staton's experience at Mercer makes him optimistic the new chancellor will be familiar with "the issues that we will have and more able to understand our needs on the Health Sciences Campus."
In addition to stable legislative funding for the medical school and the rest of campus, Staton also wants ECU to crack the $100 million mark in external funding for research. The school brought in $46 million to $48 million in external awards in the last fiscal year, and some relatively new programs are focusing on building research, including engineering, dental medicine and public health.
In addition, Provost Ron Mitchelson last year set a goal of 20 percent of faculty members becoming federally funded.
"Achieving that goal would move ECU close to the $100 million goal put forth by Dr. Staton," says Michael Van Scott, interim vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement at ECU. "Faculty and students drive research. ECU has great faculty and students. If we can find the right ways to support the faculty and students, we can reach $100 million in extramural support."
After Staton spoke to students in July, junior Andrea Tyler of Pembroke said he made a good impression and added, "I'm excited to be part of the ECU Nation when we get a new chancellor."
For his part, Staton seems excited, too, and is already working.
"You get one life," he says, "and from my point of view, pack everything you can into it every day."
And that goal of his to make ECU a "nationally prominent university"?
"We have the resources to do that," he says, "we have the people to do that, and I think it's time."