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Our Opinion: UNC System wrong to suspend Gerlach over nightlife selfies

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For the second time in six months, the bigwigs in Chapel Hill appear to be gunning for an East Carolina University chancellor’s job.

Former Chancellor Cecil Staton announced his departure from ECU in March following widely publicized tensions with University of North Carolina Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith. Now the interim chancellor who succeeded Staton, Dan Gerlach, has been sidelined.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper placed Gerlach on administrative leave Monday while officials mount a meritless investigation into Gerlach’s fondness for the Greenville nightlife.

The Pirates’ popular captain might be forced to walk the plank because he was spotted taking pictures with ECU students and drinking alcoholic beverages at a restaurant and bar. Gerlach is widely known as a leader who enjoys chatting with students and posing for selfies. His campus celebrity status has inspired apparent jealousy among the stuffed shirts in administrative academia.

Gerlach went to Sup Dogs, a restaurant near campus, saw a couple friends and accompanied the men to Club 519, a nearby bar. At both establishments, East Carolina students recognized him, spoke with him and posed for snapshots. Not unlike many restaurant and bar patrons, he had a couple drinks. That’s the extent of this supposed scandal.

Media outlets reported that alumni and community members complained after the selfies, taken last Wednesday, surfaced over the weekend. A few folks apparently didn’t like that Gerlach was pictured with his arm around female college students. An arm around the shoulder, of course, is a common gesture for a posed photo.

“When I first started here, and even before, one constant concern that I heard was that our students needed a leader of the university to be present and approachable, someone who can speak to them in their language,” Gerlanch said in a prepared statement released Sunday. “That’s what I’ve set out to do at ECU. I regret that these photos are being perceived as anything more than what they are.”

The News & Observer of Raleigh interviewed management at Sup Dogs and Club 519. Both establishments said the chancellor’s behavior was appropriate and neither received any complaints from other patrons.

Club 519’s official Twitter account posted a tweet supporting Gerlach, noting that he’s the first ECU chancellor who’s “come down from the ivory tower and been a part of OUR community.”

Roper and the UNC System say Gerlach isn’t being punished. He’s merely on leave while an investigation runs its course. The higher-ups want to seem impartial, but if they hadn’t rushed to judgment, Gerlach would still be at work.

An investigation is warranted when someone is accused of wrongdoing. Trouble is, no one’s cited a single law, rule, code or contract provision Gerlach may have violated. No facts are in dispute. The photographs speak for themselves. No one pictured with Gerlach has lodged a complaint. It doesn’t take a hotshot detective to piece this puzzle together.

Placing Gerlach on involuntary leave and publicly announcing he’s under investigation without providing him a summary of the allegations against him seems like a flagrant violation of his due process rights.

A government agency can investigate you for anything — but it can’t investigate you for nothing. In First Amendment cases, courts have ruled that groundless fishing expeditions have a chilling effect on free speech and may be unlawful even when they don’t result in any formal charges or disciplinary action.

This is a stall tactic and a public relations move, not a legitimate probe. And Pirate Nation isn’t buying it. Students are rallying behind Gerlach on social media and signing petitions demanding his reinstatement, The Daily Reflector of Greenville reports.

Roper and the UNC Board of Governors have shown themselves too eager to meddle in East Carolina’s affairs. If the ECU Board of Trustees can’t handle a few phone calls from uptight alumni without the big bosses from Chapel Hill butting in, then why have local trustees in the first place?

The stodgier folks among us don’t have to like Chancellor Gerlach’s extracurricular activities. They’re free to voice their disapproval. They shouldn’t be entitled to chase him off campus with a sham investigation.

We call on the UNC System to reinstate Gerlach immediately. By pressing this nonsense case, officials are only making him more popular by the day.

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