WECT Exclusive: CFCC board chair defends presidential hiring process

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The chairman of the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees is standing by the college's handling of the recent presidential hire.

In March, the Board of Trustees voted behind closed doors to make interim CFCC President Jim Morton's job permanent. Morton had taken over as interim president after President Amanda Lee resigned at the end of December.

The trustees did not go through a search process as they have with previous college presidents and did not advertise the position, prompting public criticism of the abbreviated steps taken to fill such a high profile and high paying job. Morton is also one of the only community college presidents in the state without a doctoral degree, which raised additional questions about his aptitude for the job.

On Thursday, Board of Trustees Chairman Mat White and fellow board member Pat Kusek sat down for an hour with WECT to discuss the process they followed, and why they say they'd do it the same way again if given the chance. They also say the process was more transparent than the public and the media seem to believe.

For months following the announcement of Dr. Lee's resignation, WECT and other local media outlets asked CFCC for any updates on the search for a new president. CFCC announced the formation of a Presidential Selection Committee in January. Unfortunately, we failed to notice an email the college sent to the media announcing that committee was meeting in March.

"Not one person from the press, media was here, Nobody." White said of the turnout for the meeting. He said he and fellow trustees were shocked at the lack of media presence considering the level of public interest in who would be chosen to lead the college. "We're transparent, but you've got to help us be transparent."

At the meeting on March 14th, the Presidential Selection Committee met with the full Board of Trustees to discuss the qualifications they wanted to see in the next CFCC president. According to the minutes from that meeting, Trustee Ann David told her fellow trustees that the acting president of the NC Community College System had offered to come give a presentation to the trustees about the presidential search process, but CFCC declined that offer since they had already started the presidential selection process.

David told the group that her own presentation was essentially the same as what the system president would have shared with them, except for the fact that the NCCCS would like 2-3 names submitted for approval before a president was selected. The state would have also shared salary guidelines for the president.

David told the trustees that a search was not required before hiring a president. The educational requirements for college president were also discussed, and David told the group there is no statute or code that dictates the president's education level. Several trustees commented that a PhD was not the most important quality for a community college president, according to the minutes.

Many of the trustees felt community colleges were moving in a more businesslike direction, and that moving forward, business acumen would be more valued than a doctoral degree. Notably, the newly hired president of the state community college system does not have a PhD.

After going into closed session, the committee agreed to establish "the qualification for the CFCC President as listed in [David's] PowerPoint presentation" to the board.

Just over a week later, on March 22nd, trustees voted to make Morton the permanent president of CFCC, catching many in the media and the public by surprise.

"It was not a predetermined thing. I think it was a thing when people looked at it logically, we made the decision to take a known commodity," White said of the 10-3 vote by trustees to make Morton president. "And people have asked me since all of these negative things have been coming out, 'Would you do it again?' And my answer is yes."

The trustees stood by their decision to vote behind closed doors, saying the conversation and votes involved a personnel matter.

"Having been in the closed session and listened to the very frank discussion that ensued from all of the board members that were present that night, I believe that everyone got the opportunity to more than state their opinions and concerns one way or the other," Kusek said. "And then once you do that and you have a vote and it's a majority and in this case a big majority, that you move forward. And you get support. I find it very troubling that in this instance you have so much dissent after a decision has been made."

The trustees also responded to accusations they used the "good ole' boy system" to hire Morton. Kusek said Morton's connections in this community were one of his strongest assets.

"You know, it's a double edged sword," Kusek told WECT. "You have one side who says it's a good ole boy system. You have the other side that you firmly know is a critical thing. Whether you're a leader of any kind whether it's an institution or a public body, city council, county commission, the college, the university. To be connected in the community. It's a relationship business. That's what life is all about, to know the people you need to be in front of."

Kusek and White said they had the benefit of a trial run with Morton as he served in the interim role, and he delivered. They said he has already accomplished more in 6 months than his two predecessors did in their 5 years combined.

They pointed to Morton's partnerships with the construction industry to identify skill sets that were needed of local graduates, as well as Morton's success soliciting money from the industry to develop training programs. They said he has improved and expanded CFCC's online programming and presence, and identified areas of weakness that need to be addressed. Specifically, an 18% drop in enrollment.

"Cape Fear Community College is a business. We're in the business of education," White explained. "We have to sell our product, we have to sell it to the students. At one time, people would line up, but now, we have to have someone in place that has the ability to market the school."

The search for a new president came at the end of a tumultuous few years for the college. Dr. Ted Spring resigned as President of CFCC in January 2015, after a series of WECT reports about his questionable expenditures of public money. Dr. Lee was promoted from Vice President of Instructional Services to take over for Spring, but abruptly resigned two and a half years later without an explanation.

White said they followed the law in the hiring process, and the written guidelines provided by the state community college system. He expressed frustration that the system had questioned their hiring process when the CFCC Board hadn't violated any written protocols or guidelines. White said if the system expects boards to follow additional rules and regulations during the presidential search process, they need to put the requirements in writing.

That may happen very soon. While updated requirements for the presidential search process were already being considered before Morton was hired, the NCCCS has accelerated efforts to finalize new written guidelines. State community college leaders will be considering new requirements over the summer for the presidential search process, and hope to put them in effect by the fall.

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