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'Disquiet at Cape Fear': An interview with The Assembly's Pam Kelley about her work on CFCC

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WHQR

Some current and former Cape Fear Community College staff are still decrying an alleged hostile work environment on the part of President Jim Morton and his upper administration. WHQR spoke with Pam Kelley from The Assembly about her recent reporting on the college.

Last week, The Assembly published "Disquiet on the Cape Fear," Pam Kelley's 5,000-word deep dive on the culture of Cape Fear Community College — and the man at the head of the institution, President Jim Morton. Kelley dug into how Morton came to power, what's changed since his assent, and broader questions about accountability in the state's community college system.

Below, you can find a transcript of WHQR's Rachel Keith's interview with Kelley, along with excerpts from her piece and WHQR's own recent reporting on CFCC.


Rachel Keith: Pam Kelley, welcome.

Pam Kelley: Thanks for having me.

RK: Let's start with what you found out about President Jim Morton's background. And from your reporting, there were several instances where job requirements were, they looked like they were waived for him.

PK: So when I started reporting this story, one of the big unanswered questions for me was, how was it that a man with no, as far as I can see, no higher education background, go from airport finance director to [a Community College] President in less than three years? I mean, it's pretty remarkable. And so what I learned is that he had recently, before he got the job at Cape Fear, he had been reassigned at the airport to marketing director because the new airport director Julie Wilsey wanted someone in that position — in the finance director position with a CPA, which he did not have.

So yeah, I can't prove intent. But right before he was hired, like weeks, or a couple of months before he was hired, the job description was changed to cut out requirements that he didn't have. And I've also learned from Julie Wilsey that he's a member of the Cape Fear Club, which is a private men's club. And there's a lot of powerful folks, men who are on boards like the Airport Authority and the trustees at Cape Fear, who she thinks kind of helped him out and helped him get that job.

RK: And it looks like when he got the vice president position [at CFCC] that was the case [with waived job requirements] – and the same for getting the president position.

PK: The president position, we do know they rewrote it for him. And they cut out any educational requirement, a doctorate had been required, and they cut out any kind of community college experience. It required 10 years of administrative supervisory experience and all that is gone. So really, there are no kind of credential qualifications in the job description at all now.

RK: Local news outlets like WECT and WHQR spoke with current and former CFCC leaders and employees about the alleged hostile working environment that Morton and some of his upper administration created. Tell us what new reporting you uncovered on this issue?

PK: I went back to some of the same folks you did and did verify a lot of the reporting that's out there. But I also had some people go on the record who hadn't before, like Larry Tingen, who had been a faculty association president. He initially was supportive of Morton and figured, ‘Let's give him a chance, you know, we've had so much turnover. Let's see if we can help him succeed.’ And within a couple of months, he was reporting to the trustees that he was hearing from faculty about intimidation, and people were scared for their jobs and being told just to keep their head down. And Tingen basically says, now, he made a mistake in ever supporting Morton.

A trustee who had not been on the record before, John Melia, who voted against Morton, spoke with me. And he voted against him because there was no search conducted, I mean he said there was a faction on the board that wanted him. And it was as simple as that. And he also said he believes that [the previous CFCC president] Amanda Lee was undermined by both some of her own folks and by trustees, and I think you may have heard this as well. But several people told me that when she would talk to the board, you could watch the body language and hear them and see that they were kind of hostile toward her. And then when Jim Morton would speak, they were kind of all ears and smiling. And if one person had told me that I might have thought that was just their opinion, but I've heard that from multiple people.

I can't remember if previous reporting nailed this down or not, but she definitely just didn't resign because she decided she wanted to go somewhere else. She was forced to resign. And a lot of people at the college liked her. I think she had a few detractors. I think, you know, anybody does, but in general, she was well regarded.

I talked to a former president of another community college, a retired, well-respected president Michael Helmick, who told me that in talking with other presidents after she was forced out they thought it was board overreach. And she, he said, she was very well respected and liked, and apparently, she's doing quite well at Bladen Community College.

RK: And let's dig into that more. From your reporting and past reporting, it appears that these employees and people that you've talked to, they were looking for support from the community college system. Can you talk about why that relationship is somewhat complicated between individual institutions and the community college system?

PK: I think initially, they hoped that they could get trustees to respond to complaints. And they found that trustees — they felt just had a deaf ear; they were not interested and really were quite dismissive of complaints, and still are, as far as I can tell. So they thought, ‘Well, makes sense to go to the State Community College System.’

But in fact, the State Community College System doesn't have a lot of legal authority over individual community colleges. They don't hire the presidents. They can't fire the presidents. They don't appoint any of the trustees. And the one power the State Community College Board had was to give final approval to Morton when the local trustees elected him president — there were calls for them not to do that. And yet they approved him unanimously, and I reached out to the board chairman at the time, and he did not get back to me. But in general, it's a system where the local colleges have most of the power. The state folks told me it works great. I can tell you, it really sometimes doesn't. Because I've covered higher education in the past and have covered some fiascos where the state couldn't find a way to do anything.

RK: In receiving information from the college for this story, you ran into some walls, like not getting employee turnover rates and not being allowed to speak to the current President of the Faculty Association Dr. Eric Brandon.

PK: Well, first of all, I want to say that Cape Fear did fulfill some of my requests. But things that you would have thought they would have had, like turnover rates, I was told there were no records. Make of that what you will.

And there were also those just some other strange things: I asked for Mr. Morton's resume. I also asked for the resume of Michelle Lee, who is the director of the president's office, and was told, you know, they're not public records. Technically, that's true. But I have never been denied a resume when I've been doing a story in higher education. And as you probably know, a lot of instructors have their CVs online, even presidents, you can look them up. So that was strange.

The other strange thing is that the bylaws of the Faculty Association state that the president can't speak about the faculty in public without the approval of the marketing department. And I tried to figure out how that got in there. I asked the President of the Faculty Association who wouldn't speak to me, a little catch-22 there. And the best I can find is that it was inserted in the bylaws around 2019 maybe, so it was inserted after Mr. Morton was president. I haven't been able to figure out how it got there. It seems if the faculty did vote for it that seems very strange, basically kind of takes away their voice. If they wanted to have a vote of no confidence, for instance, they wouldn't be able to tell anybody about it.

RK: And in 2020, former president of the North Carolina Community College System, Peter Hans told President Jim Morton to conduct an independent, third-party climate survey. WHQR reported that the faculty association, with the original endorsement of the college, conducted one but the findings were then suppressed. Where is the college now on this climate survey?

PK: The President of the Faculty Association, [Dr. Eric Brandon], in September went to the Board of Trustees and let them know that they unanimously voted to have an independent, third-party survey, exactly what Peter Hans had recommended, and they had given this request to Jim Morton.

And I think what we know at this point is very clear, is that the trustees and Jim Morton have not wanted to survey the faculty. And from your reporting, we know that faculty in-house survey, which was not a bad survey at all, I think there was fear which was one reason it wasn't released, but that it showed very low levels of support for the trustees and for Mr. Morton.

And so now the Faculty Association asked for that in September, Bill Cherry, the trustees' chairman told me in a statement, he declined an opportunity for an interview but told me in a statement that they will do a survey. Now, he didn't tell me how or when; I think that if you have faculty who are afraid of retaliation, and that is very clear here, maybe it's totally unjustified, but whether it is or not, if you try to do an in-house survey and ask them their true feelings, I think it's going to be a big fail. So I'm not quite sure what they're going to do at this point.

Mr. Morton said at a trustee meeting, he used the figures $200,000 or $300,000, for a faculty survey -- to do an independent one. I don't know where those came from. But I don't think that's anywhere near the cost.

In fact, the Belk Center for the Community College Research and Leadership does surveys for a few $1,000. I think they're waiving the cost right now. I think there are other organizations that do surveys, I don't think any of them charge six figures. I don't know where that figure came from.

And I just also want to say it keeps coming up that because of COVID, it's not a good time to do a survey. In fact, the Belk Center, which is located at NC State, offered free surveys to community colleges during the pandemic, to ask their employees about the pandemic and kind of see how they were doing, what they needed. Makes a lot of sense. 21 colleges took them up on that and did those surveys -- Cape Fear was not one of them.

RK: My colleague Ben Schachtman went to the trustees' meeting last month, and there is still no word on the status of this survey. We don't know if it's independent. We don't know if it's in-house. There aren't any details. And that was reflected in your reporting, too.

PK: Right. Any reasonable person at this point would conclude that they don't want a survey done. And so then you ask, why?

RK: Pam Kelley, thank you for your time today, and thank you for your reporting.

PK: Thank you, Rachel, and thanks for your reporting, too.


Disquiet at Cape Fear

Cape Fear Community College President Jim Morton has been controversial since trustees hired him in 2018. What does his selection—and his staying power—say about accountability in North Carolina’s community college system?

BY PAM KELLEY FEBRUARY 10, 2022

Cape Fear Community College enjoys a high profile in downtown Wilmington these days, thanks to a generous bond referendum that county voters approved in 2008. On North Third Street, the college’s performing arts center hosts touring Broadway shows. Nearby, five-story Union Station serves as a combination coffee shop, health sciences and administration building.

Union Station’s top floor, with a prime view of the Cape Fear River, is home to the trustee boardroom. It’s a large space, but on Jan. 30, 2020, when the board’s regular meeting began, it was filled to standing room only.

Two weeks earlier, WECT, a Wilmington television station, had aired a story about President Jim Morton, who’d been controversial ever since trustees chose him for the school’s top job without a search.

Most Cape Fear employees that WECT had interviewed wanted to remain anonymous, but two former administrators—the head of human resources and the information technology director—had resigned and gone public with their criticism. Both shared similar stories, WECT reported, “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.”

With the controversy exposed, concerned employees saw the board meeting as an opportunity for an overdue reckoning—a chance for trustees to confront problems that had persisted since they tapped Morton in 2018.

To read the rest of Pam Kelley’s article, click here.

WHQR’s recent CFCC reporting

Questions about possible equity chief position get lukewarm response from CFCC President

With federal grant money, CFCC plans to give a $1,500 December bonus to full-time employees

CFCC president downplays need for faculty survey, some Trustees push back, say it should be done

The Newsroom: A long, hard look at Cape Fear Community College

Part III: CFCC quietly removes key parts of its employee handbook, exacerbating existing faculty concerns

Board of Trustee Jimmy Hopkins says his priorities for CFCC are ‘transparency and collaboration’

Part II: Concerns about transparency, evaluations, and communication with CFCC’s board and administration

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

‘A second chance’: CFCC receives largest-ever grant, helping former prisoners reenter the workforce

Student Government President’s speech puts CFCC board on the defensive

CFCC Board of Trustees approve raises for staff, President Jim Morton