In Wilmington, the Decline of Community College Leadership

Something is rotten in the County of New Hanover.

Cape Fear Community College, the fifth-largest in the state, is experiencing very public governance issues. Faculty and staff have accused CFCC president Jim Morton of creating a hostile work environment built on favoritism and bullying. The “toxic culture,” as multiple sources put it, has made employees afraid to criticize leadership for fear of retaliation.

College leaders have framed the accusations as exaggerated media reports of a few disgruntled ex-employees. And the Board of Trustees, which appointed president Morton, stands behind him.

The problems, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. In reporting this story, the sources that the Martin Center spoke with (current and former faculty and staff) asked to stay anonymous for fear of hurting their job prospects or getting friends at Cape Fear fired. They described a discontented faculty and staff, a board set in its ways that is unwilling to admit past mistakes, and incompetence in running a large community college.

Those problems raise questions about how involved the state board should be in local community college issues, and what change might look like.

“I do not have faith in any of the current administration,” a current faculty member said. ”I worked for another community out of state and none of this went on there.”

Former and current faculty and staff are frustrated. Senior leadership and the board of trustees dismiss complaints—anonymous or not—as unfounded, leaving employees with nowhere to turn.

So it’s no surprise that some have turned to the media. After Ann McAdams, an investigative reporter at WECT 6 in Wilmington, interviewed two former employees who resigned over leadership concerns (human resources director Sharon Smith and IT director Kumar Lakhavani), almost three dozen current and former employees contacted her with their “concerns about Morton’s leadership and a hostile work environment.”

Those concerns are not taken seriously by Cape Fear’s board of trustees. At a January board meeting after WECT’s report, board member Pat Kusek said that “It’s unfortunate that we have one network and one reporter” pushing an agenda. The rest of the board echoed Kusek. Chairwoman Ann David said that the board feels the college is moving in “a positive direction.” Board member Jimmy Hopkins said he had “never been more proud to serve on this board and serve with Jim Morton.”

No wonder, then, that CFCC employees have little faith in the college’s grievance process. Any complaints against the president would go through the board of trustees. Former and current employees want to see an anonymous system put in place as a way to prevent retaliation while alerting leaders to problems.

“It’s a, in my opinion, it’s a larger problem,” a former administrator said. “It’s something that the community college system itself needs to find a way to address so that local employees have a place to go when they don’t feel like they can trust their own HR department, their own president, their own board of trustees.”

The issue with an anonymous reporting system, however, is that personnel disputes are difficult to settle without names. An anonymous system can work if an employee discovers financial misconduct, for example, but it’s harder to fact-check motivations behind hirings or firings.

One possibility, which was mentioned by multiple sources who spoke with the Martin Center, is to have the State Board of Community Colleges step in and adjudicate problems.

“It is difficult to respond to an anonymous allegation. However, the State Board of Community Colleges is aware of concerns raised by some former employees at Cape Fear Community College,” Peter Hans, president of the North Carolina Community College system, said in an email. “I have advised the college to undertake a climate survey of faculty and staff confidentially administered by an independent third-party.”

A climate survey is a start, but stronger action may be necessary. Advising a community college to do something is not necessarily ordering or mandating it. But it is a promising first step that the state board wants more information on what’s happening.

Board member Jimmy Hopkins said he had “never been more proud to serve on this board and serve with Jim Morton.”

“It is important to note that state law and policy mandate that local boards of trustees oversee the operations of the colleges, including personnel matters such as performance reviews of college presidents,” Hans said. “With that local authority, comes responsibility and accountability.”

If the board is quick to defend the president against faculty and staff, though, that accountability mechanism can break down. Performance reviews become a rubber stamp.

“The culture at CFCC is more about politics and gamesmanship than about leadership and education,” said a former senior-level individual who has worked with staff, faculty, and board members. “The trustee board has taken a hands-off approach to run the school, particularly the former and current chair of the board, who commanded board members to refrain from any action or oversight of the daily running of CFCC.”

So far, college leaders have been unwilling to comment since the January board meeting. President Jim Morton, his executive assistant Michelle Lee, and the members of CFCC’s board of trustees have been unresponsive to the Martin Center. “I am not interested in a conversation with you or your organization. Please do not contact me again,” trustee John Melia told the Martin Center.

Former and current employees repeatedly mentioned four issues when criticizing CFCC:

  • The choice by the board of trustees to appoint Jim Morton as president without a formal search
  • The lack of long-term contracts for most employees
  • Low morale among faculty members who say they do not feel supported in the classroom or in raising their concerns
  • The high salary of Morton’s executive assistant, Michelle Lee, who earns $104,556. Lee earns more than even executive assistants in the University of North Carolina system. Only Minda Watkins, the executive assistant to the president of the UNC system, has a higher salary of $108,000

President Morton’s salary was also criticized. Aside from the president, Cape Fear Community College operates on annual contracts (though one faculty member mentioned that faculty did not receive contracts at all for the 2019-2020 academic year). Obtained through a Martin Center public records request, Morton’s initial contract was for two years—which then automatically renewed for three more years. His salary started at $210,000 in 2018 and then grew to $260,100 a year later.

The problem of leadership is due to the closeness of senior leadership and the board of trustees.

“The board does not seem to understand that they have a responsibility, not only to the college but also, they have a responsibility to the taxpayers, to the service area of the college,” a former administrator told the Martin Center. “They have a responsibility to the students that attend that college, and they have a responsibility to each and every employee, not just senior management.”

Those who want change have turned their hopes to the State Board of Community College.

The state board could spark minor changes or major reforms. It has the authority to adopt and administer policies and regulations for all community colleges. For example, the state board could listen to the complaints about Cape Fear Community College and set up an anonymous reporting line in its office for faculty, staff, and students to raise their concerns. North Carolina has 58 community colleges scattered across the state—keeping tabs on them all is extremely difficult. Empowering the people on the ground who could alert the state office early about a potential problem could go a long way.

It can also withdraw or withhold state funding if college officials can’t maintain the college’s standards. The state board can also choose the “nuclear” option by removing the entire Board of Trustees and appoint a new one, as authorized by chapter 115D of North Carolina state law. If Cape Fear’s board of trustees feels more loyal to the president they appointed rather than to their responsibility for oversight, the state needs to be clear that such a choice has consequences.

The state board has taken action in similar situations before. In 2014, allegations against the president of Martin Community College spurred the state board to undertake an investigation that ousted then-president Ann Britt after they threatened to withhold MCC’s funding and refused to pay Britt’s salary. While deferring to local boards is often a good instinct, the state board has ultimate authority over local boards for good reason.

“The problems are self-inflicted by the use of poor judgment and questionable leadership,” the senior-level individual said.

Though the state board exercising its rightful authority can remedy situations like at Martin Community College and Cape Fear, changes to state law may be necessary to curb local power. The General Assembly, for instance, could also change the law to limit the number of county commissioners who can serve on community college boards. Currently, state law allows the governor, local board of education, and county commissioners to each appoint three members to a community college board of trustees.

“The culture at CFCC is more about politics and gamesmanship than about leadership and education,” said a former senior-level individual who has worked with staff, faculty, and board members.

While boards of education cannot appoint someone on its board to also serve on the college’s board, county commissioners can do so. Cape Fear has two trustees who are also county commissioners. That has the potential to concentrate local power. For oversight to be effective, boards need trustees willing to stir the pot and ask uncomfortable questions, without an eye to whether they’ll remain in the good graces of local powerbrokers.

Cape Fear’s board has not taken criticism seriously, choosing instead to say it comes from people who are “resistant to change,” as Kusek said at the January board meeting. In a college with about 23,000 full-time and part-time students, it’s inevitable that some employees will be unhappy about leadership changes. However. When the complaints come from dozens of current and former workers with decades of experience, it’s necessary to consider them. Sneering and stonewalling is not acceptable behavior in education governance.

The state board deserves praise for taking action when the local board of trustees wouldn’t. That praise needs to be qualified, though, until larger reforms are made that can prevent another Cape Fear from happening.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.