In North Carolina, Community College Controversies Open Pandora’s Box

At their best, community colleges provide educational opportunities to individuals who otherwise might not have them. They offer specialized workforce training that can lead to rewarding careers, as well as streamlined transfer options for those seeking more advanced degrees. But it seems that, while singing the praises of such schools, policymakers have overlooked serious problems within them.

While they may in the main be the “unsung heroes of American education,” community colleges are not immune to problems such as low academic standards, mismanagement, and even fraud. Unfortunately, when those issues arise, they often seem to receive little attention from school leaders whose job should be to provide accountability. Recent cases from North Carolina suggest that community college governance may be in need of an overhaul.

Consider Martin Community College (MCC). In 2014 an anonymous letter allegedly written by a group of concerned students, faculty, and staff was sent to the head of the state’s community college system, the school’s board of trustees, and lawmakers. It made numerous allegations against MCC’s president, Dr. Ann Britt, and trustees. “MCC is in a catastrophic state and immediate attention is necessary to re-establish its integrity and purpose,” the letter stated.

The document claimed that threats against employees, discrimination, cronyism, dubious financial dealings, and disastrous management decisions had for years been rampant, and had for years been ignored by school officials.

Jackie Gillam, the college’s board chair, responded defiantly, saying, “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 added: “Our board stands behind Dr. Britt.”

Last November, however, more than two years after Gillam made those comments, the State Board of Community Colleges (SBCC) released a report that substantiated several of the allegations in the 2014 complaint.

Financial blunders, inept campus administration, unengaged trustees, and lack of transparency had created a situation so dire that the state board threatened to withhold MCC’s funding, and it effectively pushed the president out by refusing to pay her salary; Dr. Britt is resigning in March.

The report showed that over several years, more than $5 million in state funding had not been spent by MCC. But this was not a case of fiscal prudence; state allocations are based largely on colleges’ baseline operating needs—apparently, key staffing positions went unfilled and important equipment went un-purchased, leaving the school in disarray. And by the 2015-16 fiscal year, the finances had reversed: the school was at risk of operating in the red.

Furthermore, state-mandated employee bonuses had not been paid out, and the board of trustees had become impotent because of bylaws that vested authority in a small campus executive committee. “[Under] the current structure, decisions can be made by five (5) board members rather than the full board consisting of 13 members. This circumvents the statutory intention that decisions be made by a full 13-member board,” SBCC’s report said.

On December 7, three weeks after that report was released, Martin Community College responded with a “Corrective Action Plan,” pledging to shore up its finances, reassert the full board’s power, and provide greater transparency. Somewhat shockingly, according to WITN news, the trustees sought to pay Dr. Britt $200,000 “for unused vacation and sabbatical leave”—a plan later vetoed by system leaders. Board chair Jackie Gillam says the school is now trying to find extra funds to pay for Britt’s salary until March, when she retires.

In fact, Gillam has continued not only to defend Dr. Britt, but to cast doubt on any criticism of MCC, no matter how much it is supported by the facts. She released a prepared statement in response to the SBCC’s November report, saying, “While I am very supportive of the factual and objective resolution of college issues, I am tremendously concerned that the [community college system] would seek input from only a few of our trustees and not the entire board.”

But if there is a legitimate criticism of North Carolina’s community college system, it is that it took more than two years for it to fully investigate Martin Community College. It is not that it interviewed dozens of campus leaders and administrators who might be less staunch than Gillam or some other trustees in defending their troubled school, and who therefore might provide a more reliable account of its problems.

There are supposed to be several levels of oversight over North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. At the campus level, there are boards of trustees appointed by the governor, local county commissioners, and county boards of education.

All 58 boards report to the State Board of Community Colleges, which in turn reports to the state legislature. Further oversight comes from the accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. (One reason Dr. Britt was pushed out of her presidency is that MCC has an upcoming accreditation review; system leaders and some trustees apparently wanted to be able to show that the college is “turning the page” on a bad chapter.)

Most decision-making power is granted to trustees, due to the belief that their local knowledge will provide the best guidance. They have authority to dictate personnel practices, hire and fire the president, and adopt educational policies. But trustees often seem to lack the training and knowledge to effectively and independently carry out their duties. Too frequently they rely on campus leadership to steer them—Martin Community College providing a case in point.

Richard Cowan, a long-serving MCC board member, told system officials at their recent meeting that trustees have been hindered by a lack of transparency. As an example, he said that board members are often not given meeting materials until the day before meetings and that those materials are often missing key information. (He also said that he believes there are issues beyond what came to light during the MCC investigation, although no specifics were discussed.)

If Cowan, a trustee at a school with less than 800 students, is experiencing such frustration, it’s possible that trustees at the state’s 57 other community colleges, which in a given year enroll, combined, more than 700,000 students, have faced similar issues.

Fayetteville Technical Community College, for example, is being sued by six former employees who claim they were pressured to raise student retention rates by inflating grades. They further allege that the school’s president, Larry Keen, used the high grades in an attempt to secure performance funding from the state.

And a recent tip to the state auditor’s office uncovered a scandal at Wayne Community College (WCC). A professor provided improper benefits to a school employee, allowing him to receive course credits without attending or participating in any classes. Roughly $10,000 of state and federal funds were used fraudulently. According to the state auditor’s website, other community colleges in recent years have been found in violation of either accounting practices or state codes, although no cases were as egregious as the one at WCC.

All of these examples beg the question: what might be happening at other community colleges that we don’t know about? Even if we assume that boards of trustees are engaged and willing to tackle problems on their campuses, the fact remains that college officials control their flow of information, and may not always provide the transparency necessary for good governance.

Moving up the hierarchy, the State Board of Community Colleges itself is beset with bureaucratic problems, and in recent years has served as a “rubber-stamping” body. At its recent meeting, there was a lively discussion about the situation at Martin Community College, but board members were often unaware of their own authority, and repeatedly turned to staff members for clarification.

North Carolinians should not have to rely only on the occasional bombshell from a concerned campus group or whistleblower to call their community colleges to account. There clearly is room for improvement in terms of ensuring that such colleges are being properly stewarded and that trustees and the state board are fulfilling their duties. And here, the responsibility lies ultimately with the state legislature. Perhaps it should consider these governance issues before it finalizes the community college system’s biennial budget this summer.

  • The problem is actually academic standards and the only body that can effectively address that is the faculty. Yet these positions are given to straphangers and flunkies of the administrators whose goal is to inflate revenue hence their salaries.

    By insisting that credits are transferable, states like Texas have taken a measure of quality out of the equation and now sufficiently must be assessed only by the accreditation process which is in fact an exercise in self-deceit and fabrication.

    The individual instructor whether adjunct or tenured must have their autonomy reinvested. It was always and remains the only effective safeguard of quality.

    Peer review and pride of accomplishment are the only assurances of quality. All other measures are fiction.

    • Jeremy Abrams

      Faculty must hire faculty means friends must hire friends, and that has caused ideological drift (leftist takeover, let’s be frank), and a disconnect between colleges and the communities they should serve.

      • Faculty want to be proud of their institution.

        Ideologies of any stripe are characturers of themselves hence intrinsically revolting.

        • dws

          So, um, we should just accept a continued drift into radical leftism because that would be intrinsically revolting (unless you’re part of it)? Doesn’t seem logical.

          • Students would not attend institutions where there is no value.

          • dws

            Students routinely attend institutions where there is no value. It enables them to retain respect while avoiding holding down a job.

          • Because you (taxpayer) pay them to.

            That’s babysitting. Don’t confuse it with education.

          • BD

            So good to see that you and others are willing to admit to the existence of the low educational standards with no student or administrative accountability. We must stop giving handouts without holding students accountable for actually trying and achieving real knowledge and skills. The Pell Grants (and other assistance) must come with expectations of successful course completion (not these inflated grades many feel pressure to give.) The truth must be recognized. What happens 2-4 weeks into the semester?? The parking lot and online platforms are not as crowded. Students disappear when checks come out. No accountability. Administrators know every trick in the book to make the college appear “wonderful and rosey” to the Trustees and Foundation. Taxpayer dollars are gone forever.
            Faculty knows better, but nobody want to hear the truth about the failing educational system where 75% of the students can’t write a proper sentence! Sad and frustrating for all of us that really care about education, the economy and society.
            I think ACCOUNTABILITY and choosing a mix of the RIGHT KINDS of people to monitor ALL aspects of the finance, operations and educational standards is the key. All are imperative to rebuilding a VERY BROKEN community college system. This is the essence of the honest and disturbing article written by Jesse Saffron.

          • HoustonGrandma

            What planet do you live on? Are you being sarcastic?

          • Terra firma

    • Richard H

      “The individual instructor whether adjunct or tenured must have their autonomy reinvested. It was always and remains the only effective safeguard of quality.”

      That is one reason I am no longer teaching.

  • CatalinaPatriot

    North Carolina is not alone – I invite you to look up Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona – North Carolina is child’s play compared to the mess at PCC

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      My favorite in this genre is a well-documented case study, “Max & Me: The Abuse of Power in Florida Community Colleges” by Marion Brady. “Dedicated to the Victims.”

  • Henry88

    The problems described *must* be fixed – but we must not lose sight of the other CCs out of the 58 which are struggling to carry out their mission – many with insufficient funding. The ones in well-off counties/areas (e.g. Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and a few others) get a fair amount of local funding but many (most?) do not. The State of NC needs to fund higher ed better. P.S. If you think that the CCs spend all their time teaching left-wing gender studies, …, then you really need to take a look at the nuts and bolts of what really is taught!

  • Reginald Pettifogger

    Sounds like local groups of influence were using the CC’s as their personal slush-funds, and honey-pots.

  • Jane S. Shaw

    To me, the most egregious community college incidents were the 2013 shifting of presidents’ benefits to salary at four colleges. The goal was to raise pensions, which, I believe, are paid by the state, not by the community college system.

  • Drew

    There may be problems at other community colleges or the community college system because there were problems at Martin Community College? That seems to be the whole point of this piece. Given that their are 58 other community colleges, all with their own independent boards of trustees, I think that is an assumption worth questioning.

    Mr. Saffron fails to mention that all Community College receive biannual financial audits from the office of the State Auditor. Many of the problems he referenced were financial in nature. Perhaps Mr. Saffron should question why legislative mandated oversight didn’t catch these problems.

    Furthermore, the accreditation process is having an affect. SACSCOC, the body that accredits NC Community Colleges, has several standards related to board governance and control. I think Martin CC’s firing its president suggests that those standards have teeth and affect Community College governance.

    The malfeasance Mr. Saffron references at Wayne Community College is so small and isolated, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the issue at hand. Does anyone really believe two employees colluding on a few classes, while certainly illegal, is really indicative of problems with Community College system wide governance?

    Whether NC Community Colleges have sufficient academic standards and are continuing to accomplish their missions are legitimate questions to continually ask. Having a real conversation about the proper role of governance for the system (which utilizes a unique mix of local and centralized control) would be a valuable discussion. Unfortunately, Mr. Saffron just uses innuendo and budgetary threats to make some sort of vague accusations.

    Whether the Pope Center or the James G. Martin Center, this organization needs to decide if it wants to be part of the meaningful conversation of how to improve higher education in this state or continue to engage in drive by hit pieces like this one on higher ed in NC.

    • DrOfnothing

      These are excellent points. The author is one of the more reasonable and moderate of the folks at the JMC. But the organisation as a whole has long had the CC system in its sights as ripe for the axe. They tend to generalise from a fairly small incident sample, exaggerate the problems of the system as a whole, and hold it to ridiculously high standards. JMC writers also tend to ignore the structural issue here, which is the decline in both political and financial support from a GOP-led legislature. All this is understandable, given the Conservative bent of the JMC–they are looking for excuses to make cuts in govt. spending on education, full stop.

      What is _not_ acceptable, however, is 1.) that they constantly present themselves as “improving” higher education 2.) that they unfairly demonise those they disagree with, ideologically, as being venal, incompetent, corrupt and even larcenous and 3.) the proposed solution is to give even _more_ power to a GOP-controlled legislature that has, in fact, shown itself to be venal, incompetent, and corrupt–witness their recent attempts to make permanent their unconscionable gerrymandering (now ruled unconstitutional) and their duplicitous and undemocratic efforts to completely hamstring the power of the popularly-elected new Governor. Whatever problems the NC CC system may face, their solutions do _not_ lie with giving greater oversight to the NC House of Thieves, an institution that neither represents the democratic will of the electorate nor respects the principles and spirit of the state constitution!

  • cdr

    Given an emphasis on transparency in the USDOE, how much farther do we have to look than their college navigator website or the President’s college scorecard to see that 32 of the 58 community colleges in this state do not graduate in excess of 20% of their first time full time students….sobering.

    Something is terribly wrong when the taxpayers keep spending on transport for students, and new buildings and programs funded through massive bond referendums yet graduation results are mediocre at best. The system is too big. It is failing. The education models of pre-requisites and tenure are broken.

    Many of these schools should be closed and/or consolidated and there should be support for the nearly 100 trades schools in the state that the community colleges have wanted to drive to extinction by rubber stamping programs to compete ineffectively with them.

    Many speculate that the Gainful Employment reporting regulation will be repealed. It would be far better if it was expanded to include all schools for profit and non profit. It would be interesting to see if any of the 58 community colleges would come close to passing.