Part III: CFCC quietly removes key parts of its employee handbook, exacerbating existing faculty concerns
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
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. After publication began, Board of Trustees Member Jimmy Hopkins reached out for an interview — you can find details on that here:Board of Trustee Jimmy Hopkins says his priorities for CFCC are 'transparency and collaboration'
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.
Changes in the CFCC Faculty and Staff Handbook
The December 2020 Faculty Association (FA) meeting minutes show a discussion concering the Faculty and Staff handbook changes between the Faculty Association officers, which included President Eric Brandon, Vice President Suzanne Baker, and Secretary Chardon Murray and the Executive Team, which included Morton, Dr. Jason Chaffin, CFCC Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Mr. John Downing, Vice President of Economic & Workforce Development.
At the meeting, Joanne Ceres, the Vice President for Student Services, said changes to the handbook followed a ‘normal process’, but Chardon Murray, who left the college in May 2021, disagreed. As secretary of the FA, she kept several years of minutes from these meetings, and said the process for making changes to the handbook diverged significantly after June 2020.
According to past minutes compiled by Murray, when this procedure was updated in 2016 it was presented and amended at the College Council, then emails were sent to faculty and staff requesting comment before it was presented to the trustees for approval. The most recent update in 2021 was just approved by the trustees in July.
Murray said that the handbook changes were emailed out as a final draft without a chance for comment.
Some of the changes include removing specific language around retaliation and the removal of the lines, “positive employee relations” and “harmonious working conditions.” According to the faculty meeting minutes from December 2020, Murray noted there were “dramatic changes made to the grievance policy.”
In the grievance section of the handbook, the update removed reference to 'positive employee relations' — Murray said the change struck her: "[...] it was an absolute gut-punch, taking out ‘good employee relations’ Why do that?” said Murray. “If you are concerned about the appearance that you’re hostile toward faculty, I don’t understand why you would do it. Why would that language be removed or changed?”
In the 2019 version of the handbook, there was a specific paragraph about “Grievances Involving the President,” which is entirely absent in the new handbook.
Murray was concerned about the removal of the entire section that outlines how to file a specific grievance against the president: “If you wanted to talk to a board member and say, ‘Look, I’m very concerned as an employee,' you don’t have that, that’s not in there anymore.”
Moreover, the definitions surrounding ‘confidentiality’, ‘remedies’, ‘retaliation’, and ‘record keeping’ were removed as well. (See below)
The word ‘retaliation’ only shows up 8 times in the updated 2021 handbook and in regard to discrimination or harassment cases or for investigations involving social media policies.
This is the 2019 ‘Grievance Resolution Procedure (Formal)’ section: “[...] Employees need to know their rights and responsibilities, and understand the steps necessary to make a complaint or file a grievance. In addition, employees also need to understand that they may make a complaint or file a grievance without fear of retaliation that could adversely affect the terms and conditions of their employment. All complaints and grievances should be given prompt and objective consideration in the spirit of positive employee relations.”
The updated section now reads, “Employees are responsible for understanding the College’s Discipline, Non-Reappointment and Grievance Procedure and should feel free to use the Grievance Procedure without fear of criticism or action being taken against them affecting the terms and conditions of their employment. All grievances should be given prompt and objective consideration in an atmosphere of mutual assistance.”
Additionally, the way in which grievance appeals are conducted has changed in the new policy.
According to Murray, this could be seen as a way to limit an employee's ability in the appeal stage of the grievance process “to remove objectionable members from the appeals committee,” because it has changed from ‘a committee’ of 5 members to ‘a pool’ of 10 members.
At the Board of Trustees Meeting in January 2020, after WECT’s reporting, then-Trustee Ann David said that while the school takes complaints seriously, no employee had filed a grievance through the official process.
Now that process is gone. Former FA Vice President Baker said she lost hope when the trustees extended the president’s contract in August 2020: “Seeing how the Board of Trustees gave Mr. Morton an additional five years, and with the changes made to the handbook, what was the reality that we could make some change?”
In the updated handbook there is a section on how to file a grievance against a supervisor, but not a specific one against the president. The college recently declined to answer the question as to how an employee would file a grievance against the top administrator.
Now that the policy is gone, Baker is concerned: “Looking at the changes in the language in the handbook, what’s to say, if you’re somebody who makes noise, what’s to say you won’t get that letter in the summer that says, ‘We don’t have a contract for you and then there’s no recourse.’”
Other concerns about retaliation
Baker said even though she resigned in May 2021, she was told by someone in the administration that employees who resign could teach part-time online. She had plans to teach for the fall, but then she says the decision was reversed without explanation.
According to Baker, there was another concerning action against her. In her position as the college’s Director of the Center for Professional Excellence, she took the lead on sending out information about recent diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
In particular, she said she shared a Harvard Business Review article about how bias works in employee evaluations.
“And it turned out, four people independent of each other, reached out to me, within a matter of two days after I sent that email saying, ‘We have it on good authority, that personnel had been told to redact any emails you send out about diversity, equity and inclusion, just thought you should know,” said Baker.
She said she doesn’t know who gave the order to redact her emails, but she said her immediate supervisors were ‘fantastic’, but that, “A lot of people were afraid to be publicly supportive, which is why people came to me in private to tell me about it. It’s where people came to me or communicated with me that information, [...] so there are definitely people looking out for each other, but under the radar.”
In the December 2020 FA minutes, President Morton said that the “grievance policy had been simplified because the old language was ‘very confusing’ and that the process was not mandatory. He also said, “the handbook had been updated to address legal issues.”
Brandon then said at this meeting that he understood that the process was not legally required but that for Morton and his staff “following process addresses questions before they arose.”
Baker stated at the December 2020 meeting that policy is “no longer made through a transparent process anymore in an atmosphere where faculty are already terrified.”
Morton then asked, “Why are faculty ‘terrified’?” According to the minutes, he had been “walking around campus and that people seemed to be very happy and positive, and were very complimentary.” He then said, “[I] wish I could find out who was terrified.”
Morton then asked Baker if she was terrified. She replied, “[I’m] scared.” Murray also spoke up at this meeting to say she was “afraid of retaliation for saying the wrong thing.” Like Baker, Morton asked her who made her scared.
Brandon clarified in the minutes that because most faculty are re-evaluated each year that they feel like they don’t have the ability to speak out: “[...] part of the issue was the system’s reliance on annual contracts.”
Baker also pointed Morton to a restructuring that happened a few years ago and some staff contracts were not renewed — and how this change was not communicated with the staff.
Baker told WHQR in August, “It was so frustrating to me to repeatedly hear from Jim Morton, I don’t know if he was feigning ignorance, but the issue of retaliation came up a lot. And he would always say in disbelief, ‘What are people afraid of?’ And so I politely told him, and I brought up the dismissal of the secretaries and the deans.”
According to Baker after the deans came “the department chairs, and [they] were also dismissed from their positions.”
Murray also told WHQR in Morton’s first summer as president: “He started making decisions, making cuts; we didn’t know it was coming, and he fired the department admin[istrators], kind of forcing them into retirement or they had to reapply for their jobs. And it was scary as faculty because the administrators are the ones who hold everything together.”
But according to the FA 2020 December minutes, Morton tried to reassure Baker, Murray, and Brandon that there was “no retaliation from the administration.” And that he did not want people “to be afraid to lose their jobs.”
Baker told WHQR that Morton kept pressing them to disclose specific examples of retaliation, “There are ongoing legal reasons I can’t discuss the retaliation that I’m aware of, and some of the other retaliation, that’s other people’s stories, and I don’t feel I have permission to share. But so he kept using the lack of ‘evidence’ as basically proof that there was nothing for people to worry about, but I kept trying to make him understand that the fear is real, the morale is low.”
Murray agreed with Baker’s assessment of this contentious meeting, “Whenever we brought up concerns about anything, it was uncomfortable. There was a lot of denying that there were problems, obfuscating, asking for specifics in a way that wasn’t a genuine sort of way. But in a way that was, shut up — it definitely was uncomfortable.”
Baker sent an email to FA President Dr. Eric Brandon in January 2021: “BOT seemed completely unaware last January that there were grave concerns from the faculty about the leadership of the college. It was my thought that not making them aware that this [the handbook] is something we are exploring doesn’t serve us and may result in a repeat of last year’s debacles.”
Brandon replied, “It’s a very complicated issue, and I don’t think mentioning it in the BOT report right now will help us in any way.”
Baker retorted in the email exchange, “I see our role as one of advocacy on behalf of faculty. The handbook changes being made ‘below board’ are significant, and as a faculty member, I’d want my FA to speak up.”
In this same exchange, Murray then drew attention to the lack of protocols in changing the language in the handbook. “There’s no mention of the violation of the established process regarding handbook policies. And have they gotten back to us about why the process was violated and what they plan to do about it? And why they removed the ‘good employee relations’ statements and all the protections against retaliation. That last part, especially, has huge legal implications for faculty.”
In speaking with WHQR in August 2021, Murray said, “The fact that there is such a lack of wanting to try and build a bridge to create trust between people, with this [the handbook process] it makes me very concerned.”
And Murray said their concerns over the handbook changes were never addressed: “There were no answers. That’s about par for the course, though. Yeah, we bring up a lot of things that don’t get answers.”
The Faculty & Staff Handbook and its subsequent changes, according to the college’s minutes, were adopted unanimously on July 22nd, 2021 without discussion.
And that’s been the problem according to Murray, the Board not performing their oversight role: “There was just a lack of asking questions, especially this is something that they've used with the handbook multiple times, ‘it's just updating, we're just updating.’ But that's not the case. [...] There's not a lot of concern about double-checking. Like what is really going on?”
Murray said with the non-release of the survey results and the changes to the grievance policy is what drove her to speak to the media: “That’s why I’m here. Because otherwise, I’d like to go on with my life. But I can’t, I mean, I’ve just wracked with survivor’s guilt…”, said Murray. “I’m more appreciated at my new University of North Carolina Wilmington job as a criminology lecturer.”
At the last Board of Trustee Meeting on July 22nd, 2021, President Eric Brandon announced to the board that they’ve begun their search to replace Murray and Baker: “Finally, the search to fill the vacant positions of Faculty Association Vice President and Faculty Association Secretary is ongoing.”