WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A story WECT first broke in January about leadership concerns at Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) is now making state and national headlines. Former CFCC Human Resources Director Sharon Smith and former Information Technology Director Kumar Lakhavani were the first outgoing employees to speak publicly about their concerns, immediately after they resigned from the college.
Both shared similar stories of what they describe as a hostile and retaliatory work environment, as well as poor management skills and a general lack of professionalism at the highest levels of the college.
“It was at the point where I felt like I could no longer influence the right thing to do....” Smith explained at the time. “I got to the point there where I felt like they just wanted someone who would do whatever they needed to have done. And I did feel like it was going to affect my reputation as an HR professional to continue to work there, and be dragged into that juvenile type of conversation, those types of situations where they would just end up wanting me to be the axe if they wanted to get rid of someone.”
More than 30 current and former employees contacted us to share stories of workplace bullying and favoritism at the public institution, that in numerous cases prompted experienced employees to retire earlier than planned. Common denominators in the complaints: CFCC President Jim Morton and his notably well-paid executive assistant, Michelle Lee.
“I just didn’t agree with a lot of what was going on and I took a lower level, much less paying job in Winston-Salem,” Lakhavani said of his own departure. “I would’ve rather stayed at Cape Fear but the environment was just too toxic.”
On Monday, the James G. Martin Center, an education think tank in Raleigh, published a story on the topic after hearing similar complaints from current and former CFCC employees. As WECT experienced, most of the employees and former employees were unwilling to go on-the-record over fear it would cost them their job, or hurt their future employment prospects.
The Martin Center’s managing editor Anthony Hennen learned that Peter Hans, president of the North Carolina Community Colleges System (NCCCS), has asked leadership at CFCC to take action in response to employees concerns. NCCCS confirmed this to WECT Monday evening:
“It is difficult to respond to an anonymous allegation," Hans wrote in a statement. “However, the State Board of Community Colleges is aware of concerns raised by some former employees at Cape Fear Community College. I have advised the college to undertake a climate survey of faculty and staff confidentially administered by an independent third-party.”
When asked if CFCC had taken the state’s advice and hired a firm to conduct the climate survey, the state told us we’d need to ask CFCC. Since WECT broke the story in January, numerous CFCC trustees have refused to answer our questions about the alarming number of employees and former employees who had spoken with us, raising extremely similar concerns about poor leadership and retaliation. Long-time employees told us Morton “reorganized” their departments, and they were forced to reapply for their own jobs, sometimes without success.
Despite the fact that these complaints were coming from some of the college’s top executives, board members flatly dismissed the concerns at the one board meeting when this issue this was publicly discussed, two weeks after WECT’s first report.
Chairwoman Ann David read a statement the board prepared during an hour-long closed session, elaborating they feel the college is moving in “a positive direction.”
Board Member Jimmy Hopkins said “he’d never been more proud to serve on this board and serve with Jim Morton,” while Mary Lyons-Rouse added Morton was doing “great things” in his role.
Board Member Pat Kusek even blamed WECT for publishing the concerns about Morton that she felt were without merit.
“It’s unfortunate that we have one network and one reporter" pushing this agenda, Kusek said. She added Morton was doing the job the board hired him to do, and people are “resistant to change.”
In addition to the Martin Center report, the New York City-based National Review Online has now picked up on the story, calling the situation at CFCC an “abuse of power.”
“The root of the problem seems to be that the Board of Trustees, rather than exerting independent oversight of the president, is in league with him,” George Leef wrote for the National Review.
“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,” the Martin Center article added.
Jim Morton has declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview, instead sharing a four-page written response denying some of the allegations against him.
“I prefer not to keep engaging with you about false accusations," Morton wrote to WECT after we sent him a follow-up email requesting clarification on the written statement he provided. “The College is a wonderful place to work, and numerous employees tell me this on a regular basis. There is no ‘police state.’ There is no preference in hiring based on friendship/family/politics, but, instead, we diligently follow our procedures and go out of our way to avoid any appearance of impropriety in hiring.”
Since the publication of the state and national reports, WECT has reached out to CFCC again to ask if they have hired a third-party consultant to conduct the recommended climate survey, where faculty and staff will be able to share their concerns in a confidential way without fear of retaliation. We are awaiting their response and will update this story when we learn more.
In the meantime, the state says it will be closely watching the situation at CFCC.
“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. With that local authority, comes responsibility and accountability,” Hans said. "The State Board of Community Colleges continues to monitor the situation and has been in active communication with the Cape Fear Community College trustees. As always, the State Board will support all of our 58 colleges in their critical mission of serving 700,000 students in the community college system.”
There have been at least two cases in recent years where outside officials have intervened because of local issues at North Carolina community colleges. In 2017, the state threatened to withhold funding from Martin Community College because of leadership concerns there. It’s worth noting those issues came to light after a group of anonymous students, staff and faculty wrote a letter to the state’s community college system.
Roanoke-Chowan Community College in Ahoskie remains on probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Some of the recent problems there involve issues with nepotism and failing to enforce a distinction between the Board of Trustees at the college and the administration.