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CFCC marine tech students speak out after high-profile resignations hamper program

CFCC Marine tech students
CFCC Marine tech students

Since the fallout of the resignations of Cape Fear Community College’s Captain Robert Daniels and boatswain and scientific support technician William Davis, marine technology students are asking the college what specifically prompted Daniels and Davis to resign.

Robert Daniels and William Davis reportedly resigned last week because of changes to their compensatory leave policy. Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development John Downing said the adjustments to the policy, made about two weeks ago, were the result of an internal human resources (HR) classification study that changed the status of the employees so that they were ‘exempt’ from overtime. He also said the changes were made in accordance with the stipulations in the Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Several students in the program have asked to see the HR classification report and to know what specific changes to FLSA would mandate the college to change the policy so suddenly.

Downing said he would not elaborate on any changes made to FLSA — and said that Vice President of Human Resources and College Safety Anne Smith wouldn’t give the HR internal report to the students because “it had a lot of people’s salaries on it, so I would say, probably not. [...] I don’t think she will share this with you, to be honest.”

Downing stated incorrectly that salaries are protected by privacy laws. That's in direct contrast to North Carolina's public records law on the release of public employee salaries.

For example, it is a public record that Downing is the third highest-paid employee at the college, earning $135,936 a year. Public records also show that Smith, who was hired to work as an HR business partner in 2019, has quickly risen through CFCC’s ranks. She was promoted to the Director of Human Resources in 2020, and in 2021, received another promotion to become the Vice President of Human Resources. She started out at $55,008 in 2019, but now makes $133,008 and is the fifth-highest-paid CFCC employee.

Getting to the 'bottom of it'

WHQR has also asked the college to respond to questions surrounding the changes to the compensatory leave policy — and has requested the internal HR study that led to this decision as well as the specific changes to the employment contracts of the captain and crew, and has yet to receive a response.

In the absence of a response from the college, WHQR reached out to the state system office to understand whether there was new system guidance on FLSA law and compensatory leave policies.

Recently-appointed CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk III told WHQR, "I am a little concerned that this issue has occurred in the first week before a semester starts because that tends to make students feel uneasy about their future."

He added, "No one told anybody that I know about these changes. I'd like to know more. [...] From what I understand the main question are especially legal questions between exempt and non-exempt employees, and exempt employees getting compensated time off. I don't know anything about that yet. And I'd have to do some research on it."

But said, "I will get to the bottom of it. I'll ask questions, but I do know that that program was a flagship program. It's one of a kind. On my trustee tour with [Board of Trustees] Mr. [Bill] Cherry, everybody was very proud of that program."

Meeting with students

In an effort to understand the college’s decisions, HQR acquired a 50-minute recording of an August 30 meeting between about 40 marine technology students and Downing, Mark Council, dean of career & technical education, Robert McGee, dean of student affairs, and Jason Rogers, the chair of the marine technology department.

Downing started the meeting by telling the students, “You’re in no danger of having this program shut down; there are some tweaking going on, people are reacting to things; you’re going to be okay. You’re going to get your education and get the opportunity to work in that field if that’s what you desire.”

Downing told the students there are no plans to get rid of the Cape Hatteras — and that they’re looking into Plan B for this fall and spring.

Rogers said that he’ll start looking at the applications for the open positions in early October but couldn’t promise that qualified personnel will submit applications because of the changes to the compensation policy.

At this point, Downing said to the students, “We didn't run the crew off; they resigned; so we will find somebody else that will like to work. So, you know, we're looking.”

Parker Hodges is a marine technology senior and treasurer of the marine tech club. He said he’s concerned with the rapid pace of finding a crew to replace the experts who left.

“They have years of experience with this specific information, more so than somebody who might come out of the field and say, ‘Oh, I know how to use this.’ These teachers know how to use it, teach it, fix it, and implement it in our classes,” said Hodges.

Rogers said, for now, he’s making the decision to not run cruises for the fall semester because of safety concerns — without a captain or a full crew, he couldn’t appropriately staff the ship.

“My promise has always been to the student body to do this as safely as possible, not only for your safety but for the safety of the crew. It just takes one mishap out there, and this goes all up in smoke,” said Rogers.

Students agreed with Rogers’ decision that they can’t staff the boat safely at this point but turned back to question Downing on the college’s reasoning behind putting the staff and the students in this position.

One student said, “that decision of reclassification, that’s the pebble that dropped in the pond that’s causing this huge ripple. And I think that’s why we’re so upset.[...]Ultimately, this ripple started with this HR decision.”

The students further pressed Downing on explaining the difference between the classification status of ‘exempt’ and ‘non-exempt’.

Downing responded, “No, I will not.”

He also told the students that the College Council nor the Board of Trustees had the responsibility to review the compensation policy — that it was solely “the college’s decision.”

There's also a question of whether the CFCC would have to submit a substantive change for the program to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission (SACSCOC), which conducts oversight of the college's educational quality and effectiveness, if the Hatteras is unable to continue on with its student cruises.

Students voice frustrations

Mark Council, the dean of career technical education, said to the students, “we have to support the decisions the college makes, whether we like it or not.”

One student told him that Council's statement was “silly," adding, "why would we support something that we don’t agree with? That makes no sense to me.”

Several of the students reiterated to Downing that the sea hours aboard the Cape Hatteras research vessel enhance their employability after the completion of their two-year degree.

One senior student in the program, the president of the marine tech club, Maggie Oxendine, who wants to do hydrological surveying as a career, said that she’s missed three tours because of the pandemic — now she’ll miss the fall cruise because of this lack of staffing.

“Our first time on the Hatteras was actually this summer. It was amazing. It was incredible. And now we get a little bite of that, a little piece of that, and they're simply taking it away again. It's disheartening. It's like how am I going to get this experience I’m not going to get anywhere else?” said Oxendine.

Oxendine is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps — and said her tuition payments through the GI Bill are running out.

“So this program was like my last chance. This was it for me; my heart and soul was in this, like I'm putting everything into this program, and to potentially lose job opportunities is very upsetting,” said Oxendine.

At one point, staff mentioned that the students would be able to work on the Martech research vessel, but Hodges said this ship is not the same as working on the Cape Hatteras.

He said it’s a quarter of the size — and they wouldn’t be able to sleep overnight on this vessel.

“While we are able to use a lot of the [same] equipment [on the Martech], we're still not able to implement it in the same way if you're out in the middle of the ocean, 50 miles offshore with five to 10-foot seas, knocking you around the boat. It's just, it's not the same,” said Hodges.

Hodges gave another example as to why learning on the Hatteras is integral to the program: “We have a big torpedo-shaped side scan sonar device; it's attached to a cable and provides us live feed of the bottom. Put out in the river (where they take the Martech), we're trolling 40 feet deep; go offshore, we're trolling 100 feet deep. That's a lot different.”

Further, students from Oklahoma and Florida during this meeting said that out-of-state tuition is high — and they made a conscious decision to come to CFCC because of the invaluable experience working aboard the Cape Hatteras.

Hodges agreed with what these students said at this meeting — and with Oxendine.

“There's no other reason to really be in this program without that ship, without going to sea and getting the experience that no other college in the country offers. It's hard to get hired with an associate's degree, but with that expertise in the field and using the equipment that we would use throughout the future in the industry, it sets us aside from every other school,” said Hodges.

Now, the students are organizing, and they put out flyers around campus to get people out to the September 22 Board of Trustees meeting, but Oxendine said they were torn down by CFCC staff, although she couldn't say which staff were responsible.

One of the flyers some CFCC staff tore down.
Megan McDeavitt, Maggie Oxendine
One of the flyers some CFCC staff tore down.

“Students are coming up to us like, ‘Hey, they're taking the flyers down, they're pulling them down. We tried, you know, to grab some to save for you,'" Oxendine said.

One marine tech student, Adam White, was so upset with the tearing down of the flyers, that he filed an August 30 incident report with the New Hanover County’s Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to WHQR’s request for comment, but on the report, they noted, “prosecution declined.”

Oxendine also said she visibly saw this CFCC staff taking them down.

“It was it was almost aggressive, honestly. I remember seeing them walk by the classroom, I was sitting and watching them do this. They're like crumbled up [the flyers] in their hands. And like, they look so mad and so distraught. I'm like, ‘why are you upset?’ It's just about the Board of Trustees meeting on the 22', which is public knowledge. Why is this wrong? So we still don't know why they did that, but they did,” said Oxendine.

Oxendine said the marine tech flyers were in compliance with CFCC’s expressive activity policy.

She said, ultimately, she wants the board — and the community — to know how much the students value the program and the people who run it.

“I have never met teachers, staff, crew that has a heart like these, like the marine technology program, ever. It's incredible. You can tell they care from the moment you sign up for this program to the very end. They're behind you 100%, and I have never found that anywhere else,” said Oxendine.

Hodges added, “I mean, they feel like family. They’re all incredible people.”

The students hope to possibly rectify what’s been done and get the program back on track.

“I think that the only hope would be to get them to implement some other policy that would offer them some kind of compensation, whether it be an excessive amount of paid time off based on the number of estimated days they're supposed to spend offshore each semester or each year, or even bonuses or something along those lines so that they can go above that policy to take care of the crew, and provide an incentive for them to come back or hire new crew,” said Hodges.

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