Tepid response to letter asking for support of UNCW chancellor

An ad in local newspapers this weekend asked for support of UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller.
An ad in local newspapers this weekend asked for support of UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Despite being told by a prominent community member that it was a "done deal" that UNC Wilmington Chancellor Gary Miller was leaving the institution soon, Tom Looney and dozens of others in the community moved forward with publishing an open letter in local newspapers this weekend.

"We knew immediately that we were doing the right thing," Tom Looney, the co-founder of the Seahawk Innovation Fund, said.

The letter, addressed to UNC System President Thomas Ross, the UNC Board of Governors and the UNCW Board of Trustees, asked for those governing organizations to focus on the positive aspects from Miller's less than three years in the area. Miller has been named a finalist for positions in Ohio, Wisconsin and New York in the last several weeks. The chancellor has not spoken publicly about the reasons for his job search, but a university spokesperson insists he has not been asked to find new employment.

"I think that Chancellor Ross, who is Gary's boss, and runs the UNC system, could put an end to what's a growing controversy and an area of unease in the Wilmington region by standing up and saying we support and we commit to Chancellor Miller as the head of UNC Wilmington for the coming years," Looney said.

That statement of support has not arrived to date. When asked Friday where Chancellor Ross stood on the position of Miller's potential departure, a spokesperson referred to it as a "personnel matter."

"He typically would not comment on personnel matters," Joni Worthington, the Vice President for Communications for the UNC System, said.

The chairman of the UNCW Board of Trustees didn't make a plea for Miller to stay either.

"I believe individuals should be afforded the opportunity to look at other options and it not be tied into speculation. What is inevitable is that individuals are always looking for new challenges and new opportunities. UNCW is very important to me as chair, it's important to our board, to the community, and the region. As always the board of trustees will lead with this in mind. We will work with Chancellor Miller and President Ross in ensuring that whatever decisions are made they are made for the right reasons and for the best interest of the institution," Wendy Murphy said in response to four emailed questions -- asking if the board wanted Miller to stay, if they've done enough to convince him, why they're supporting the search and what did the board think of the open letter.

The frustration on behalf of some of Miller's supporters tends to focus on the current makeup of the Board of Trustees.

"I just question what is actually going on with the board and how that's affecting the image of UNCW," Linda Upperman Smith, a former UNCW Board of Trustee who served from 2001-2005, said.

"I think when politics becomes more important than what's good for the community and what's good for the students, then the system is broken.  And it's time for us to really examine who we put in those positions of power," Tonye Gray, a local marketing executive said. Both Gray and Smith signed the letter of support for Miller.

Looney is asking for another look at two recent appointments to the UNCW Board of Trustees in particular. In August 2013, Governor Pat McCrory tapped Dennis Burgard of Jacksonville and Michael Drummond of High Point for appointments to the Board of Trustees. Both men are UNCW graduates and both men were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, which was banned from campus months earlier. The suspension became a source of contention for the university over the last several months.

"It just seems odd the two picks that were made at the time frame they were, given all the facts as we know them," Looney said.

WECT investigated the timing of the appointments to the board in a previous story, which you can read here -> http://bit.ly/1lF5hEW.

"It's offensive to portray me as something I'm not," Dennis Burgard said when reached by phone late Friday. "I have no agenda. When I met Gary I liked him. Only time I've had a problem with him is when I've questioned him, but that's my job as a trustee."

Burgard said he was asked about five years ago to consider taking a position on the BOT by a handful of people, including Parks Griffin, a founding member of the SAE fraternity at UNCW who headed up Governor McCrory's inauguration committee. Burgard says he, Griffin and Drummond all went to UNCW around the same time. Drummond was not available for comment last weekend.

"I can dispel any rumor that I have had anything to do with getting rid of this chancellor," Burgard said. "If anyone thinks I have the kind of influence, my SAE powers, I don't know what they think those are, how could that possibly happen, I don't have the authority to remove the chancellor."

Burgard added that he has not brought up the issue of the way SAE was handled during its disciplinary hearing since making a promise not to do so after the board meeting last October.

While not issuing his personal opinion on whether or not he wants the chancellor to stay, Burgard did say the open letter campaign is a positive.

"This is 100% the way for supporters of Miller to handle the situation," Burgard said. "I think it's the proper way."

But with no member of the trustees or Board of Governors speaking up in support of Miller, it's unclear what effect this move will have on the situation or the future of the university.

"What we'd really like to see is a new beginning and that this board and Gary Miller to find a way to guide the university collectively and continue on. His record that has been published to the public, despite some of the analogy that has appeared in the press, seems to me to be pretty impressive," Pete Hexter, a local fundraiser who organized the letter campaign, said.

"My family and I have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and many, many hours to UNC Wilmington.  I mentor faculty, staff and students in many areas. I am very, very concerned on where this university is going forward and whether I will continue to donate my personal resources there," Smith said.

Copyright 2014 WECT. All rights reserved.