CFCC faculty asks board of trustees for help, citing concerns about President Morton

Updated: Jan. 30, 2020 at 2:29 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Some staff members at CFCC began the process this week to try to remove Faculty Association President John Branner from his position as their chief representative. This comes after Branner stated on the record at a College Council meeting January 22 that he was unaware of any complaints from faculty involving President Jim Morton.

In a WECT report earlier this month, two senior executives who’d just resigned their positions with CFCC went on camera about why they left. Former Human Resources Executive Director Sharon Smith and former Information Technology Director Kumar Lakhavani shared similar stories of what they describe as a hostile and retaliatory work environment. They also expressed concerns about Morton’s leadership and mismanagement. Dozens of other current and recently departed CFCC employees have also reached out in recent weeks to share similar complaints.

Before she left her position in November, Smith sent a signed letter of concern to two college Board of Trustees members, Jonathan Barfield and Paula Sewell, welcoming them to contact her.

“During my tenure with the College over the past two and a half years, I have witnessed a dysfunctional culture of workplace bullying, gossip, and favoritism at the highest level of the institution, which I have always tried to address with integrity and professionalism, and influence fairness when possible,” Smith wrote in her letters. “However, the unprofessionalism and lack of leadership competency is a big concern.”

Months after sending the letters, Smith said she’d yet to receive a response. While Barfield told WECT that he had forwarded one or two letters of concern along to Board Chairman Ann David to investigate, David told WECT she was only in receipt of one anonymous letter of concern. Why she did not receive the signed letter from the outgoing Human Resources director is unclear.

CFCC’s Faculty Association met on Tuesday. According to CFCC spokesperson Sonya Johnson, during that meeting a group of instructors voiced concerns regarding Branner, and his statement of support for Morton at the College Council meeting. In the College Council meeting, Branner said that the Faculty Association has had only positive interactions with Morton and that the group was supportive of the president.

“In [Tuesday’s] Faculty Association meeting, a group of instructors expressed their desire to issue a vote of ‘no confidence’ for Mr. Branner, but such a process does not exist in the Faculty Association by-laws. In order to make a change to the association’s by-laws, an amendment to the existing by-laws must be presented in writing to all faculty to consider by an anonymous electronic vote. As a result, Mr. Branner remains in his role as Faculty Association President,” Johnson explained.

We have been told by CFCC employees familiar with the faculty meeting Tuesday that faculty voted to begin the process to remove Branner, but the exact steps that have transpired so far are unclear, above and beyond the faculty voicing concern. Johnson has not yet responded to follow-up questions about a possible vote that took place.

The day of the meeting, WECT was copied on an email sent to the entire Board of Trustees, and to New Hanover Commissioners, asking the trustees to step in and provide a neutral platform for employees to safely express their concerns and opinions.

“Since the allegation surrounding President Jim Morton and his inner circle have surfaced, the college’s employees have been in a constant state of anxiety. The faculty at CFCC has been advised to direct any concerns about President Morton to the Board through the procedures in the handbook. However, it is the consensus among employees that there is not sufficient protection from retaliation by going that route. Several employees have noted that any information that has been presented to the board in the past, has made its way back to Mr. Morton quickly,” the email to the board of trustees said.

The email is anonymous, simply signed “Supporters of the NEW Faculty Association of Cape Fear Community College." Staff allege in the email that contrary to Branner’s statements, several faculty members have shared their concerns with the board over the last few months, and “many of them have provided time/date stamps to document their submission to individual members of the board.”

“Mr Morton did not help inspire trust in the process when he conducted a ‘handwriting test.' He did this with several people to try and reveal who may have been the subordinate who sent the 'one letter’ to the board,” the email notes.

WECT has spoken to an employee who says Morton asked them to review handwriting samples in an attempt to determine who wrote a letter to the board complaining about him. The employee asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Morton denied the handwriting claim when asked by WECT.

In a meeting that begins at 4 PM Thursday, the board is expected to discuss the recent allegations against Morton. It is unclear if any of that discussion will occur in open session.

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