A Small Community College with a Big Problem

An anonymous complaint and student petition to oust the president of Martin Community College roused a mini-eruption at the close of last month. The complaint, a 10-page email titled “The Crisis State of Martin Community College,” made the news in Greenville—the nearest major city to the college’s home of Williamston in Martin County and was picked up by the Raleigh News & Observer and national education site Inside Higher Ed. Scott Ralls, the president of the community college system, uncomfortably mentioned it at last month’s meeting of the State Board of Community Colleges.

The complaint was sent to two Greenville-area TV stations, the college’s board of trustees, the State Board of Community Colleges, and other public officials.

While there are 58 community colleges in the state, rarely does internal conflict surface to this extent—where the president of the community college system asserts that the issue must be resolved, and where the accusations are lengthy, specific, and anonymous—especially at one of the smallest colleges in the system. Martin’s president, Dr. Ann Britt, has been president since 2000, but the complaint aims to end her time in office.

The email, dated June 16, lists scores of accusations against Britt, the board of trustees, and various staff members of the college. They range from mismanagement of funds and contract fraud to employee intimidation and racial discrimination. The email also complains of lesser charges such as Britt’s poor communication and the deleterious effects of her age (she is 76).

The email includes a letter from the Student Government Association (SGA) to the board of trustees, also anonymous, in which the writer claims that over 80 percent of the student body signed a petition to the “Board of Directors” asking them not to renew Britt’s contract. WNCT News reported that “more than 50%” signed.

In an interview with the Pope Center, Martin Community College Board Chair Jackie B. Gillam said that only 60 students (not 60 percent) out of the student body of about 1,500 signed the petition, and some of them were “ineligible” because they were continuing education students not represented by SGA.

However, Gillam was unable to provide a copy of the petition, and the president’s office could not be reached after multiple attempts. Britt told WNCT News that she could not comment on the allegations until she had spoken with a lawyer.

The Pope Center received an anonymous email backing Gillam’s claim in support of the administration. The email further asserted that “two disgruntled employees whose contracts did not get renewed,” Walter Whitfield and Marvin Miller, are behind the “smear campaign against the College.” The “Crisis” letter does give special attention to what it claims was the administration “cowardly and illegally” dismissing Whitfield and Miller. Until June 30, according to the letter, Whitfield was the interim executive director of continuing education, and Miller was the dean of administrative services.

Still, essentially every ”he said, she said” allegation surrounding this “crisis,” on both sides, has been anonymous or unsubstantiated, even if plausible. Until someone produces some meat behind the words, it will be hard to make much of it all.

Even if no one does, the college will be forced to address the claims of the letter, no matter how baseless they might be. State Board President Scott Ralls said in a statement that he has been “in conversations” with President Britt and the Martin trustees. Gillam told WNCT, “We have already begun the process of having an investigation into these allegations by external authorities including the Office of the State Auditors [sic].”

Bill Holmes, the director of external affairs at the auditor’s office, confirmed to the Pope Center that the office had learned of the allegations, but did not know how long an investigation would take or whether the office would even conduct one. “We don’t ever confirm or deny that we’re doing an investigation,” he said.

The auditor’s office will have its work cut out for it. The “Crisis” letter included a 41-point, three-page document of “State Auditor Information.” On the subject, Gillam emphasized in her interview with the Pope Center that Martin passed its yearly audit with flying colors.

“Not only did we receive a clean audit, they specifically said that ‘We don’t have any suggestions to make nor have we found any findings.’”

The most recent audit pertains to the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. Some of the allegations made in the “Crisis” document were about events during or before that period; many are about events after that, and most of the 41 allegations are very specific. It is possible the author of the document is blowing smoke, but many of these claims would take quite an imagination if that is the case.

Previous audits during Britt’s tenure (2005, 2006, and 2007) have found that the college had inconsistent segregation of duties—meaning that employees did work out of the bound of their jobs—and followed improper procedures for safeguarding machinery or equipment. A special audit in 2012 also found inconsistent segregation of duties and deficient safeguarding of cash.

Some of the “State Auditor Information” document’s allegations are in line with these past findings. It alleged that “$356,782 worth of equipment was improperly stored. Mold developed to such a degree the equipment was hauled away and thrown out (for a fee of $7,000).”

The document further claimed that maintenance workers moved college equipment to Bear Grass Charter School; the then-chair of the board sits on the Bear Grass board as well. It also alleged that the controller received an effective raise to do a vacant CFO position’s work, even after the school hired a CFO.

Gillam said that she does not know whether the college has a CFO, and denied the charge that equipment was sent to the charter school.

Until the auditor’s office completes its investigations, we are not likely to know whether any or all of the many allegations have merit. Gillam adamantly said they did not. “That 10-page document had very little to do with what actually is the truth. There are little pieces that might have a grain of truth and nine grains of misrepresentation.”

She underlined President Britt’s “superior” rating on a required yearly evaluation by the board, and added, “Our board stands behind Dr. Britt.”

Still, it all looks a little too reminiscent of the president’s counterparts at independent college William Peace University and at UNC-Chapel Hill, where presidential failures to lead, or at least to communicate, have led to major headaches for their respective communities.

The State Board of Community Colleges will be addressing the Martin problem at its next meeting, and we will find out whether the bulk of the problem is a failure of communication or worse.