Part I: Unreleased faculty survey shows concerns over toxic workplace still plague CFCC

The discrepancy between how the Board of Trustees rate their own performance versus how a third of the faculty see them is considerable
Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 2:49 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WHQR) - Two leading members of the Faculty Association leaving in frustration, concerning results of a faculty survey that were never released, removing the grievance process against the college president from the faculty handbook, concerns about transparency, the discrepancy between how the Board of Trustees rate their own performance versus how a third of the faculty see them — these are all part of WHQR’s look into the college’s allegedly toxic climate.

In the first of three parts: a look at the history of the current administration and the fallout from WECT’s 2020 reporting on the college climate. Then, the origin and fate of a faculty climate survey designed to gauge the morale of employees; the survey was conducted, with roughly a third of full-time faculty responding, but the results were never released. While the administration considered the ‘sample size’ of the survey to be too small, those who did respond generally indicated low morale — and laid that negative workplace climate at the feet of the Board of Trustees and President Jim Morton.

Editor’s note: Prior to publishing these pieces and airing their radio companions, WHQR reached out to President Morton and several of the Board of Trustees for an interview or comment. None responded to our requests. The college requested that all questions be submitted through its public records portal although they were not traditional records requests. WHQR submitted 21 questions; the college declined to answer all of them, broadly citing the unreleased status of the survey and personnel laws without addressing any question specifically.

The History

Controversy has surrounded Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) President Jim Morton since his hiring in 2018 — and that contention has continued into the present.

It began when the college promoted Morton, then vice president, to president of the college when Amanda Lee resigned in October 2017. The Board of Trustees (BOT) conducted little to no search before hiring Morton who only obtained a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, not a doctorate like most presidents in the North Carolina community college system.

While Morton and the Board of Trustees have touted achievements such as securing a 2% raise for all employees in February 2021 and increasing and then maintaining enrollment figures, and helping to secure the largest-ever grant for the college, Morton has also been accused of overspending on travel expenses (the trustees were accused of this, too) (November 2020); creating a retaliatory and hostile work environment (January 2020); doling out favors and salary increases to his closest friends (January 2020); and not releasing public records over increasing legal expenditures (July 2020).

Despite these lingering issues, in August of 2020 the Board of Trustees extended his contract for another five years.

The CFCC Faculty Association’s (FA) Vice President, Suzanne Baker, and Secretary, Chardon Murray, both left in May 2021 because, according to them, the work environment had not improved since WECT’s investigation. That reporting detailed how two senior-level employees Kumar Lakhavani, the former Information Technology Director, and Sharon Smith, the former Executive Director of Human Resources, left in the fall of last year, and their allegations that Morton and his staff, in particular the executive director of his office, Michelle Lee, created a culture of fear and retaliation.

The WECT investigation also reported that close to 30 anonymous staff members contacted the news organization to share their concerns over the working environment at the college.

The interviews with CFCC employees boiled down to a fear of losing their jobs if they spoke out against both Morton and some of his administrative staff’s workplace behavior. WECT documented alleged concerning behaviors like Morton asking Lakhavani to break into Smith’s hard drive to view confidential employee complaints, viewing handwriting samples of those employees complaining about him to the Board of Trustees, and both Morton and Lee engaging in name-calling and failing to conduct an annual review of a former employee who wasn’t performing well at her job.

Another common theme that emerged through this reporting was that these employees did not feel they received support or backing from the Board of Trustees. Sharon Smith in particular said the board’s failure to respond to her written letters was one of the driving forces in contacting WECT.

After the news station’s investigation into dozens and dozens of employees’ claims of a retaliatory work environment, in the Board of Trustees meeting minutes from January 30, 2020, then Trustee Ann David said, “the Board of Trustees has confidence in the leadership team for the College. There also has been an outpouring of support for College administration from faculty and staff since two former employees voiced their complaints in the media.”

David also said, “no current employee has submitted any work environment complaint or any complaint about the President through the policies or procedures outline [sic] in the CFCC Faculty & Staff Handbook. Cape Fear Community College takes all employee complaints seriously. If any current employee has a concern, the current employee should follow the process in the CFCC Faculty & Staff Handbook.”

A year later, the process for filing a grievance against the college president was actually removed from the handbook — but more on that, later.

Then Board of Trustee Chair Pat Kusek and current Chair Bill Cherry and current member Jimmy Hopkins endorsed David’s statement in January 2020, saying that they had confidence in Morton’s leadership.

In the wake of WECT’s report

Chardon Murray was the Secretary of CFCC’s Faculty Association. Murray was at the January 2020 BOT meeting and said that some of the faculty came to hear the board’s responses after the investigation broke: “When they said, ‘Yeah, it’s no big deal’, there was an audible gasp that went throughout the room, when they said, ‘Yeah, this is just a reporter who’s unhappy.’”

Murray refers specifically to then-Chair Kusek. In the January 2020 minutes, Kusek stated, “There is one media network and one reporter that have shown a great lack of professionalism and respect in the way they have reported this story,” meaning investigative reporter Ann McAdams and her subsequent stories into CFCC’s hostile work environment.

Suzanne Baker was CFCC’s lead sociology instructor and the Director of the Center for Professional Excellence. She worked for CFCC for 14 years. Like Murray, she also left in May of this year.

She was also the faculty association vice president — she said she took the position after the former president, John Branner, allegedly went back on his promise to speak up for faculty members in the wake of the WECT story.

“Then when he turned around and went back on this word at that Board of Trustee meeting, when he said there was nothing to report, I immediately thought the next chance, the next spot that opens up in that faculty association, I don’t care how much work it is; I’m going for it,” Baker said in an interview with WHQR.

Shortly after this meeting, Baker said she was given the position of vice president for the association — but Branner then rescinded it. But eventually, Baker said, she was reinstated. The reasons she said that were given were unclear, but Baker said she thinks it was about her being vocal about problems with Morton and his administration.

According to the January 2020 BOT meeting minutes, Baker was right about Branner not being honest with the BOT about some of the faculty’s concerns. According to the minutes, “Mr. Branner thanked the Board for their support of his voluntary service as Faculty Association President and that he hoped to continue to serve the college.”

Baker said though the faculty did have concerns, Branner wasn’t ready to be honest about them: “And John Branner had actually told us that in that January Faculty Association meeting that predated the Board of Trustees meeting, he told us point blank that if he had any concerns that were brought up to him by a faculty member — he would reword it so that it didn’t sound negative.”

Concerns and allegations about CFCC hit state and national media as 2020 rolled on. In March of that year, Peter Hans, then President of the North Carolina Community College system told Anthony Hennen, an editor for The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, that he “advised the college to undertake a climate survey of faculty and staff confidentiality administered by an independent third party.”

When WECT followed up with the college about this possibility in May 2020, they replied, “[We] have no plans to conduct the survey the state recommended.

So the Faculty Association undertook the survey, a serious undertaking that fell to then FA Secretary Chardon Murray.

The Faculty Climate Survey

Murray became the secretary in 2020, and said this position became like a “second full-time job.” She said the survey fell in her lap at one of the Faculty Association Executive Team meetings in early 2020. According to Murray, she said to President Morton, “How are you all going to do the faculty climate survey?” And the response was, “Well, isn’t that your job?”

So Murray started researching surveying methods and began work on the questions, and even added some about the pandemic — questions the administration wanted answered, she said.

According to her, the administration was already anticipating a negative evaluation because they said, “It’s Covid, so everybody’s going to be unhappy anyway.”

Suzanne Baker agreed with this assessment: “During our executive team meetings, [Morton] was dismissing the survey already saying things like, ‘Oh well, because of Covid the results are going to be — he was trying to invalidate the survey before it was even done.’”

The survey focused on ratings of various levels of leadership at the college; which level of leadership has the most positive/negative impact on faculty morale — and how this has changed over the past five years; and satisfaction levels with the college’s response to Covid-19.

Murray had about 30 academic references that helped her to build out the survey the faculty would ultimately receive. She also used methods and questions from the CFCC surveys conducted in 2013, 2014, and 2017.

After several months of research and writing, the online survey, which included a section for written responses, was ready to roll out to all part-time and full-time faculty.

Read the rest of this story here.

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