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CFCC was asked, and told, to do a 'third-party, independent' climate survey. It looks like it hasn't.


Since 2019, several media outlets have reported on allegations of a toxic workplace at Cape Fear Community College and the request by the head of the state's community college system that CFCC conduct a third-party, independent climate survey. After considerable delay, CFCC has done a survey — but it does not appear to be what the head of the college system requested, or what faculty had hoped for.

Editor's note: Parts of this story are still developing, depending on several public records requests filed with CFCC. Updates will be included in this article and noted as such.

Dozens of current and former CFCC employees have spoken to WECT, WHQR, and The Assembly both on-record and anonymously about their concerns about president Jim Morton’s leadership, saying they fear retaliation for speaking out about an alleged hostile working environment. Following reporting by WECT, Peter Hans, then head of the state's community college system, formally requested that CFCC conduct a climate survey with a third party, independent entity.


The reason the survey is under scrutiny: CFCC President Jim Morton and his upper administration have long battled accusations of creating a hostile work environment on campus, and reports from current and former faculty, both on and off the record, that they fear for their jobs if they speak up about the situation.

For example, former IT director Kumar Lakhavani told WECT in 2019 that Morton directed him to access the former human resources director Sharon Smith’s hard drive to view confidential complaints against him. Both Lakhavani and Smith have since resigned from the college.

Because of these public criticisms, in 2020, then-head of the state's community college system Peter Hans said the college should conduct a “third party, independent” survey. After Hans issued this statement, the college then told WECT that they had no plans to conduct one.

Later that year, the CFCC faculty association (FA) conducted its own survey, with the approval of the administration. About 35% of full-time faculty participated in the survey, but the results were suppressed by the college. That survey showed low ratings for the leadership of the president and CFCC’s Board of Trustees.

WHQR did release the results of the FA survey, which were obtained from the college through a public records request. President Jim Morton publicly denied the results were released by the college as part of an apparent effort to downplay their importance.

After the suppression of the FA survey results, at the September 2021 Board of Trustee meeting, Faculty Association President Dr. Eric Brandon said the association unanimously voted for the college to conduct an “independent, third party” survey.

After Brandon made his statement, some of the trustees, including Jonathan Barfield and Deloris Rhodes, pushed Morton to answer whether he had plans to conduct a survey. He told them he didn’t want to conduct a survey because there “never been any value to them” and that “people are frustrated because of Covid, so I think a lot want to attack.” But Barfield insisted that he survey the college’s employees: “Sometimes you see things you don’t want to see, but it helps make the organization better.”

A lack of clarity around the survey

At the following trustee meeting in November 2021, Morton briefly touched on the development of a new survey. He said he was working on “putting it together.” Morton gave no specifics. Trustees asked no follow-up questions.

At the most recent meeting in January, there were no further presentations made to the board on how the survey was to be conducted.

WHQR filed a public records request in January for emails sent to and from CFCC Vice President Michael Cobb and the Executive Director of the President’s Office Michelle Lee about the climate survey’s development from December 2021 to January 2022. The college responded, “there are no emails responsive to this request.”

Come February, there was still no word on how the college planned to conduct the climate survey. Writing for The Assembly, Pam Kelley reported that board chair Bill Cherry said the college would survey the staff but would not disclose any specific plans.

Kelley also noted in her article that the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at N.C. State University conducts climate surveys for around $5,000 — and that the cost had been waived entirely because of a three-year grant. If CFCC chose Belk Center to conduct the survey, it would be considered an independent, third-party one.

On March 1, the college sent an email informing staff that the climate survey was open until March 14th. The email read in part, “[w]e appreciate the time and effort of the faculty and staff members who helped develop this survey.” The email indicated that if the staff had any questions about the survey they should contact CFCC Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning & Compliance Michael Cobb.

This indicated to numerous faculty members who spoke with WHQR on the condition of anonymity that the college had developed and run the survey, not an independent, third party.

The college maintains it has conducted a “third party” survey. In two emails sent on March 3 and March 14, FA president Eric Brandon stated, “[t]he CFCC administration is using a third party, Alchemer, to host this survey. I was assured that this is an anonymous survey and that CFCC will not receive any identifying information from Alchemer.”

Further, in the college’s email to staff about the survey opening, it stated, “Your participation and responses will be strictly confidential and will not be part of any employment or disciplinary record. No individually identifiable information will be collected or reported.”

Several sources at the college told WHQR that Vice President of Marketing and Community Relations Sonya Johnson led a committee handling the survey’s development. But when WHQR requested information on this, the college said that “there are no documents responsive to this request.”

Alchemer and privacy

Alchemer, formerly SurveyGizmo, is not technically a third party in the sense suggested by many faculty members — it is a software company that allows its clients to use the platform to generate their own surveys. It's not clear what level, if any, of anonymity can be afforded to respondents using an Alchemer survey — a consistent concern for faculty.

Per the company's website: “Capture your feedback your way. Put it work right away. Alchemer helps organizations of all sizes understand and transform their engagement with markets, customers, and employees.”

On March 1, WHQR requested the college’s contract with Alchemer — a public document — but the college has not yet fulfilled this request.

Editor's note: After publication, CFCC clarified that there is no formal contract with Alchemer, only an annual subscription. CFCC noted it has licensed Alchemer — and its predecessor, SurveyGizmo — for several years. The current year license runs from November 14, 2021 to November 14, 2022 and cost $2,700, according to an invoice provided by CFCC. The invoice does not provide any additional details about the arrangement's provisions for anonymity or confidentiality.

Alchemer website, screenshot
On Alchemer's website -- detailing their survey platform.

WHQR reached out to an Alchemer spokesperson to understand how the platform protects confidential information starting March 15, but as of publication, they had not been able to provide a spokesperson or answers to questions.

In the college’s efforts to increase participation, CFCC offered to conduct a drawing for two tickets to see Jay Leno at the Wilson Center on Friday, April 22. The college did state in the email to staff that "to ensure the confidentiality of the climate survey," the ticket drawing would be conducted separately through a Google form managed by Kristina Mazzarone, the director of the Center for Professional Excellence.

Questions about the survey

Neither CFCC officials nor the Board of Trustees has responded to questions about how the college is justifying the third party designation, how the survey questions were developed, how data was collected and held confidential, and their goal response rate. The latter is a key issue, as the college suppressed results of the 2020 FA survey claiming that the response rate, about a third of their full-time faculty, was too low.

WHQR did acquire a copy of survey. The 27-question form does not ask any questions about the president’s or the board of trustees’ leadership at the college. Respondents' feedback was limited to their own experience and their immediate supervisor.

Past CFCC surveys conducted in 2013 and 2017 have asked questions about the performance of the upper administration. And the 2020 FA survey did ask detailed questions about leadership, both the administration and the trustees.

The current survey does provide a way for staff to leave comments in an open-ended way: “Please provide suggestions for improvement at CFCC.” For this survey, this question would be the only route to critique the leadership of Morton and/or the Board of Trustees.

Sources have told WHQR that the survey has been completed, but CFCC has not confirmed this or provided results in response to a March 18 request for the results, including the open-ended comments.

The Board of Trustees meets on Thursday, March 24. The college noticed the meeting on Monday, but has yet to post the agenda online, so it’s unclear whether the college will discuss the results of the 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