Part II: Concerns about transparency, evaluations, and communication with CFCC’s board and administration
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.
Last year, the Cape Fear Community College Faculty Association conducted a workplace climate survey.
The survey included two sections, quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative broke down the climate by numbers, showing what percentage of respondents agreed with statements like “I have confidence in the leadership of the CFCC Board of Trustees” and other indicators of workplace climate. The qualitative allowed more subjective comments. The results of both were unfavorable to President Jim Morton and the Board of Trustees.
Several past student government presidents have also expressed related concerns about their relationships with the board.
At the same time, CFCC’s board members have rated their own performance highly and, while it remains under wraps, Morton’s evaluation was also apparently positive.
This disparity isn’t the only concern, however — there have also been questions about how the Board’s resistance to making agenda materials accessible prior to meetings and to streaming those meetings, even during the pandemic. There are also other questions about transparency and communication.
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. Following the publication and airing of part one, Trustee Jimmy Hopkins contacted WHQR; we have scheduled an interview for Thursday morning -- and will include relevant parts of that conversation in future reporting.
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.
Evaluation of President Morton and the Board of Trustees
The 2020-2021 Board of Trustees (BOT) performance evaluation of President Jim Morton, according to Sonya Johnson, CFCC Executive Director of Marketing and Community Relations, is not a “public record.”
However, there is a precedent for releasing this type of information. In 2014, the Star News reported that the New Hanover County School Board released then-Superintendent Tim Markley’s evaluation, which told the public he needed to improve on how he evaluated and supervised employees. The following year, WECT reported that Markley received “lower scores in four of the seven categories compared to last year.”
According to the NC Open Government Coalition, personnel records are mainly exempt from release, but there is a provision in North Carolina law that the head of an agency can release personnel information if it is “critical to upholding the trust and confidence in the public agency.” Another reason could be that former superintendent Tim Markley gave the school board consent to release his evaluation to the public.
At the BOT meeting on May 27, 2021, following a closed session to discuss Morton’s evaluation, then Board Chair Pat Kusek emerged from the session to state that his performance was “favorable,” but wanted to share “valuable feedback” with him.
But according to the 2020 faculty climate survey, close to 60% of respondents disagreed with the statements: “The College President communicates openly and transparently with the faculty.” “The College President fosters a climate of mutual respect within my college.” and “The College President is responsive to the concerns of the faculty.” 53% of the respondents also disagreed with the statement, “I have confidence in the leadership of the College President.”
The qualitative comments from the survey about the president were not positive either. But some appear to have been trying to give honest feedback, “Stay humble. Continue to learn. Be honest with faculty about your shortcomings. Recognize your limitations and reach out to faculty to help.” and “Recognize the hard work of your faculty. We are not the enemy.”
For the Board of Trustees, a majority of the faculty mainly disagreed that they “value faculty opinion,” “openly and transparently communicate with faculty,” and that they “foster a climate of mutual respect.” Additionally, 60% of the respondents disagreed with the statement, “I have confidence in the leadership of the CFCC Board of Trustees.”
For the Board of Trustees, the qualitative comments had statements like, “[t]he BOT has explicitly ignored feedback from concerned faculty about the state of the college,” “[t]he Board of Trustees has failed to listen to concerns expressed by faculty at the college about the current leadership” and “[m]ore from others’ experience, not my own experience, I would say BOT need to invite faculty into meetings more intentionally to hear what they are doing, what they need, what they feel about things without faculty fear[ing] retaliation.”
But the Trustees apparently had a rosier evaluation of their own performance.
At the May 27th, 2021 Trustee meeting, Kusek reported that the board members had completed a self-evaluation.
WHQR received the BOT’s self-evaluation through a public records request to the college — it showed that the board was relatively pleased with their own performance. There were only three guideposts for the board to evaluate 28 statements: ‘agree’ = 2, ‘needs improvement’ = 1, and ‘undecided’ = N/A.
For the 13 trustees, their combined scores did not fall below 1.7, their lowest scores being for these two statements: “The Board sets clear expectations for the President.” and “The Board has policies that require fair employee due process and grievance procedures.” This meant that 3 out of 13 trustees said these needed improvements. For the latter statement, two trustees wrote the following comments: “This has also improved” and “Always caught up to speed.”
No category received an overall ‘needs improvement’ and some of the trustees left positive comments such as, “Very proud to serve on such a well respected and community-oriented Board” and “CFCC BOT is a ‘top of the line’ Board that has kept knowledge of activities in and around the college. Jim Morton does a great job of keeping the Board informed of all matters. It is a true honor to work with the president and Board in directing the direction of CFCC.”
While the board rated themselves fairly positively, they’ve received criticism from the faculty — and from three former student government presidents.
Concerns from past Student Government presidents
PJ Eby, the president for the 2020-2021 academic year, gave a speech criticizing the members at the board’s May 27th, 2021 meeting. She accused the board of not taking her Student Government Association (SGA) reports seriously, as she said they were typically on their phones and not listening intently.
Minutes from the meeting only mention: “Ms. Eby presented comments regarding her time as SGA President.” There was no official college record of her complaints against the Trustees.
Eby told WHQR in June 2021 in regards to her tenure as president she was typically eager to share with the board what she was doing with the SGA budget: “I was excited to see for them to see from where I started to the growth I had, [...] they really just showed no interest in what I had to say ever, which is very, very unfortunate.”
Both Sam Brohaugh, the SGA President from 2017-2018, and Luis Mendoza, the SGA President from 2018 to 2019, provided written statements to WHQR about their experiences with the Board.
Mendoza, like Eby, said few board members remembered their names and was “ignored” during meetings. He also said that “different faculty would share any opinion regarding concerns in their department but were shut down.” He also lodged a complaint against the president; that anytime “[he] shared a concern, President Morton would give vague answers and go to the next person.”
Brohaugh also said that when he gave his reports, he was met with “some empty ‘good report Sam’ before they briskly moved on without any questions.”
Transparency surrounding the Board of Trustees Meetings
There have also been concerns about how the board conducts its meetings, especially in terms of transparency and accessibility.
For several years, the public has noticed that the board’s agendas are typically not accessible before each meeting. Currently, on the trustees' website, there is only a record of each meeting’s minutes.
In August 2020, WECT reported that CFCC’s policy is only to release the board’s agenda upon request. CFCC does not technically follow other governments and educational institutions in the region in that it doesn't post agendas online with attached documents before the trustees’ meeting — a practice that allows both the public and the media to ask informed questions about policies changes before they're voted on.
Moreover, the public and the faculty have been asking for the board to stream their meetings for several years. Even when the pandemic hit — and the public no longer had the option to view the meetings in person, there was no attempt to stream these for the public. That's according to Chardon Murray, the former faculty association vice president, who pointed to North Carolina’s state law §166A-19.24, which requires that meetings with remote board member participation also have measures in place to allow the public to join remotely and to clearly hear all the board's actions. Murray left the college in May 2021 after eight years.
According to minutes of the Faculty Association meeting with the Executive Team in December 2020, Dr. Eric Brandon, the association’s president, noted the faculty's desire for more accessibility of BOT meetings: “Dr. Brandon stated that faculty asked about the possibility of creating a live stream for the Board of Trustees meeting.”
Suzanne Baker is the former vice president of the Faculty Association. She left the college in May 2021, after 14 years. She was also the former lead sociology instructor for the college and the Director for the Center of Excellence. In an interview, Baker said this live stream request went back even further.
“And we brought up that issue again, can we live stream the meeting so people can attend? And Jim Morton seems, my perception was that he was upset. He said to me, when I asked, ‘Well, should I have to record every meeting I go to?’ And Dr. [Eric] Brandon stepped in and was like, ‘No, but this one’s open to the public,'" Baker said.
This request also showed up in January 2021 email exchanges between Murray and Baker, with Murray asking, “Have they gotten back to us about when they will set up an online link to the BOT meeting?” Dr. Eric Brandon, who is president of the faculty association, weighed in on that question in a later email exchange with Murray and Baker and said, “I have no idea if they are going to have the BOT meeting online.”
As of the board’s most recent meeting — in July — there was no streaming option available.
Another concern is attempts to discourage the public from recording BOT meetings. At the July 22, 2021 meeting, WHQR News Director Ben Schachtman attended a meeting where then-Chair Pat Kusek asked those in the room to turn off all recording devices, even though North Carolina general statute § 143-318.14(a) explicitly grants the right to all attendees — not just journalists — to record open meetings.
Murray also had this issue going back to early 2020 when she started to record two of the trustees’ meetings. Murray told WHQR, "they came up to me afterward and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And so every time that I go to a board of trustees meeting, I make sure I’ve got a screenshot of the actual statute so that I can tell them, ‘Well no, this is the North Carolina statute that says, yes indeed any person can broadcast or publish this public meeting.’”
CFCC declined interview requests and asked that all questions be submitted through the college's public records website. WHQR submitted 21 questions, including two about meeting transparency:
- Why are the Board of Trustee agendas not posted before each meeting?
- Why are the Board of Trustee meetings not live-streamed when the Faculty Association has asked for this?
CFCC gave the following response: This request presented 21 questions related primarily to a faculty climate survey. Since this survey was not ratified by the faculty association, we are unable to answer these questions. In addition, some of the questions are pertaining to personnel issues, which cannot be discussed.
The college's two stated reasons for declining to answer — personnel issues and the climate survey — have no bearing whatsoever on the questions about meeting accessibility or transparency.
In Part III of WHQR's series on CFCC, a look at changes to the Faculty and Staff Handbook, including one change that removed the grievance policy against the president.
Below: The Board of Trustees' self-evaluation