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

A comparison of most of the leadership positions at the college.
A comparison of most of the leadership positions at the college. Respondents could select the following for this question: strongly agree (green), agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree (orange)

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 a2% 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 appointed as a faculty representative — but Branner then rescinded it. 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. (Baker later ran unopposed for the faculty vice president position).

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.

Deciding not to release the survey

The Faculty Association conducted a faculty climate online survey that opened in October of 2020 and officially closed in December 2020.

In the Board of Trustees minutes from January 21st, 2021, Dr. Eric Brandon, President of the Faculty Association and Philosophy Professor at the college, gave a report to the trustees about how the survey responses were going, “the survey remain[s] open for a few more weeks in December as a way to increase participation,” he said, and that the “Faculty Association Officers are currently tabulating the data from the survey.”

No comments from the trustees about the survey were noted in the official college record from this meeting. Unlike meetings of many other government bodies — City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, the school district — CFCC’s meetings are not recorded or streamed (more on that later, too).

Suzanne Baker said that this survey was a “chance to be heard. The faculty were really excited that it was coming out.”

But Brandon had some bad news for the Faculty Association on February 26, 2021. In an email to the FA, he said the original goal of the survey was to inform the college leadership and the Board of Trustees about how to “improve communication between the administration and the faculty.”

Brandon came to the following conclusions after the survey was completed: the “non-random nature of the sample” and the not “large enough sample” meant that the FA couldn’t assure “confidence in the results of the survey.” This smaller sample size, according to Brandon’s email, “exacerbated concerns” about “protecting the privacy of all survey participants.” So for all these reasons, Brandon said, “the Faculty Association will not use or share the results of this survey.”

Brandon said, “he understood any disappointment” with the decision. But he recommended that the college consult with a “third party to conduct such a survey,” which was what had been called for earlier in March 2020. Murray then also agreed with Brandon’s assessment in her February 2021 resignation letter as secretary of the Faculty Association, which was emailed out to the Association.

But in a February 24, 2021 email exchange between Murray and then FA Vice President Baker, a couple of days before Brandon’s announcement, Murray said she would redact any faculty comments based on ‘personal attacks’, or that had ‘personally-identifying information,’ and or ones that were ‘off-topic or not relevant’.

Even in this exchange, Murray foretold what would happen, “I recognize the importance of getting it RIGHT, and I know it is going to be heavily scrutinized.”

Murray told WHQR in August 2021 that, “as far as confidentiality is concerned, the very first thing that I did was disaggregate or split the names from the survey [responses]; I went through to make sure that people who took the survey were actually faculty members, and I assigned serial numbers.”

Murray added that with the written or qualitative responses, she “tried to be conservative with what I chose to redact; people trusted me, and I wanted to protect them but not silence them.”

As for the case about the survey not being randomized, she said she found in her research this isn’t necessarily required when it comes to these types of climate surveys. She noted that if the college was going with this rationale for not releasing the survey, then the way in which students evaluate faculty would not be valid because those evaluations are also not randomized.

Murray was the creator and the administrator of the climate survey — and once she realized her hard work was all for naught she stated in her resignation letter that she wanted to “advocate for faculty at a time in which their voices are increasingly silenced. I hoped to encourage the administration to recognize that faculty felt progressively more removed from decision-making and overwhelmingly felt as though the administration did not respect the hard work we do for our students.”

According to Murray’s resignation letter, which she emailed to the FA, “there were dozens and dozens and dozens of you who personally told me you were too afraid of retaliation to complete the survey,” which was the sentiment reflected in those faculty who contacted WECT in 2020.

In the same letter, Murray said she stood by the results but “understood the survey’s small sample size.” And also claimed that the “results may cause some people in leadership positions to incorrectly assume that certain individuals and certain divisions are responsible, which may lead to retaliation against certain divisions/or individuals.”

She said in addition to creating and providing the analysis of the survey and her regular duties as a faculty member, had led her to decide to step back for the good of her “students, health, and family.”

Murray still had concerns, though. In an email Murray sent to Baker on March 17, 2021, she worried what Brandon would ‘officially’ say at the Faculty Association meeting about the survey, “I don’t want to openly challenge him, but I will stand up for myself and the survey. If the anonymity thing comes up, that’s fine — then we will release the quantitative results. I don’t know why he’s [Eric Brandon] so convinced that the qualitative results I sent you both identify people — they don’t.”

Baker responded to Murray’s email, “I don’t, but assuming he’s going to justify the decision the way he did in the email he sent to everyone (sample too small, not able to guarantee anonymity).”

Editor’s note: The ‘quantitative’ results showed percentages — what part of the faculty felt higher, lower, or moderate morale, for example — and the ‘qualitative’ results were written comments, stripped of any identifying details that could lead back to a particular employee.

Murray told WHQR in August 2021 that when she was told that the Faculty Association survey was “not going to see the light of day, so I resigned because there’s nothing wrong with the survey, I stand by my work.”

Baker told WHQR that following Murray’s resignation, at the next executive meeting, she challenged Faculty Association President Eric Brandon on not releasing the results.

“I said, let's be honest, you keep trying to invalidate her work. And the real reason you made the decision, and I said this right in front of Jim Morton, the real reason you made a decision not to publish results is because of a fear of what might happen to people, if folks can be identified by their comments,” said Baker.

But she said she knew the pressure Brandon was under: “I don’t fault him, I understand. That’s got to be super tough because ultimately the buck stops with him. And I also understand his desire to protect people, especially because there’s a lot of fear of retaliation.”

Murray said she’s still saddened that the results were suppressed: “This community deserves better. It just does. Our students deserve better because this affects everybody. And it’s not just faculty being whiny.”

And it felt like a loss for the faculty who participated: “So many people have given up and for good reason. I mean, just nothing has seemed to come out of it [speaking out], except just being under a microscope. It’s just so scary,” said Murray.

Baker said she too was upset with the non-release: “Then after all of that, and then after all the hundreds of hours Chardon Murray put into it, to turn around and say, ‘Well, you know, sorry.’”

Here’s what the official record has to say on why the results weren’t released, from the March 25th, 2021 Board of Trustees meeting minutes: “Due to a low participation rate, the difficult decision to not use and not share the results of the 2020 Faculty Climate Survey was announced on February 26.”

“Ms. Chardon Murray resigned as the Faculty Association Secretary. I [Eric Brandon] thank her for her service to the Faculty Association, including her work as a member of the Constitution and Bylaws Committee in Spring 2020, her regular duties as Faculty Association Secretary, and her extensive work on the 2020 Faculty Climate Survey.”

It's worth noting that, when the administration learned WHQR was looking into the survey, President Morton tried to preemptively dismiss any reporting on it and tried to blame an 'unauthorized' person for its release.

Morton sent this email to all faculty and staff about the survey.
Morton sent this email to all faculty and staff about the survey.

On August 26, Morton sent out an email to all faculty staff saying, “Recently, I learned an unauthorized person released the unsanctioned climate survey.” He reiterated the official reasons for not moving forward with the survey, and added, “the college did not release this to the media.”

That’s not exactly accurate — in fact, WHQR obtained a copy of the survey results through a public records request for emails.

The 2020 Faculty Climate Survey was not released by an 'unauthorized individual' but by the college.
The 2020 Faculty Climate Survey was not released by an 'unauthorized individual' but by the college.
This shows WHQR received the survey through a PRR request.
Ben Schachtman
WHQR received the survey as part of a PRR request.

For some at CFCC, Morton’s email wouldn’t come as a surprise — the survey has been contentious since day one.

The survey results

While CFCC considers the survey ‘unreleased,’ the data and formatted results remain public documents, which the college handed over to WHQR as part of a formal records request. WHQR has decided to release the results of the survey because it gives insight into about a third of the full-time faculty’s feelings about the workplace climate.

A total of 106 faculty members — mostly full-time employees — participated in the survey, leaving close to 570 written comments. Respondents make up about a third (35%) of the full-time faculty, and less than 1% of part-time faculty.

This highlights who took the faculty survey.
This highlights who took the faculty survey.

One of the questions asked specifically about ‘overall’ faculty morale. There were options to rate the morale: over the past 5 years, over the past 2 years, and the past year. For 5 years, about 76% of respondents said it decreased; for both the last 2 years and the past year, 81-82% said morale decreased.

Another question asked the respondents to rate different types of leadership that impact the faculty morale at CFCC. The worst rating was given to the Board of Trustees with 76% of the faculty respondents viewing them negatively — a stark contrast to how the Board rated their own leadership on a self-evaluation (more on this later).

Respondents could answer the following: very positive (green), somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, negative, very negative (orange).
Respondents could answer the following: very positive (green), somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, negative, very negative (orange).

Behind the BOT, was President Jim Morton — seen negatively by about 69% of the faculty respondents. By contrast, about 76% of the faculty respondents gave positive ratings to ‘department leadership’ or department chairs. This also was the case for ‘division leadership’ like academic deans — 73% of faculty respondents had a positive view of them.

The respondents had high ratings for their department's leadership abilities.
The respondents had high ratings for their department's leadership abilities.

Respondents also had considerable support for the work of the Faculty Association, about 73% said the FA had a positive impact on their morale.

The trend from this survey is that the faculty tend to have a more favorable opinion of those leaders closer to them like academic deans or department chairs. The further removed a leadership position was from staff in the hierarchical structure, the more negatively faculty tended to view them.

But a more negative view of upper administration isn’t necessarily new. In faculty climate surveys from 2013 and 2017, before Jim Morton became president, a majority of respondents said they didn’t feel they had a voice in policy decisions and that those decisions are not communicated in enough time to allow for input through the FA.

However, there was a more favorable view of the upper administration in that a majority of faculty felt respected by them — a feeling that has soured over the last several years.

These past surveys show that faculty have wanted the upper administration to do better with their communication practices.
These past surveys show that faculty have wanted the upper administration to do better with their communication practices.
These past surveys reveal that more of the faculty felt respected by upper administration.
These past surveys reveal that more of the faculty felt respected by upper administration.

Correction: This article has been updated — initially it stated that Suzanne Baker's position as faculty vice president was rescinded, the position was faculty representative.

In Part II of WHQR's series on CFCC, a closer look into the respondents' view of President Jim Morton and the Board of Trustees — and the BOT's own self-evaluation. We'll also explore more transparency issues within the college's leadership.

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

Below: The quantitative results from the CFCC faculty survey.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR