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Part III: Two high-profile CFCC resignees discuss their reasons for leaving

Part of CFCC's campus
Part of CFCC's campus, Union Station (rear view).

Two directors of CFCC’s prized programs recently resigned last spring: Chip Munna, program director over emergency medical services (EMS), and Carolyn McCormick, program director over nursing.

Note: This is the second part of a series of investigative reports on Cape Fear Community College. Stay tuned for additional installments throughout the week, and a special edition of The Newsroom on Friday. Find Part I here and Part II here.

Both former CFCC employees attest to President Jim Morton and his upper administration ignoring problems at the college — and continuing an alleged hostile working environment, first reported by WECT.

Munna and McCormick said that — even though they cared deeply about their students, the college’s reputation, and teaching their content — staying under the current CFCC administration was untenable.

Other high-profile resignations also occurred in the spring when the captain of the Cape Hatteras Robert Daniels and boatswain and scientific support technician William Davis left over changes to their compensatory leave policy, which the college ultimately walked back.

Chip Munna’s departure from EMS

Munna was the director over both the curriculum and continuing education EMS program. He left June 10, 2022.

“I just turned in my 30-day notice because they [the college administration] just weren’t addressing issues on the continuing education side,” Munna said.

Munna now works as the director of EMS at Brunswick Community College. One of his former CFCC instructors, Gene Harrell, followed him there, too.

Munna said right around the time he got the director position, he started hearing complaints about CFCC’s management.

“I remember when I was first hired, a lot of people didn't get their contracts renewed. And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, like was this a bad decision for me?’ And then, I started hearing about some of the stuff that was in the news over the next couple of years about employees complaining about this and that, but probably this past year and a half, almost two years, I saw what these people have been talking about, when you had a concern and you brought it to HR, it wasn't handled, it was buried, just wasn't addressed,” said Munna.

Munna said he also left due to Morton’s administration ignoring problems within the EMS division – including ongoing issues with personnel. Earlier this year, according to Munna, Vice President of Economic and Workforce Development John Downing initially refused a meeting with him to talk over his concerns, but about three months later he finally took the meeting.

“That meeting was unfruitful. Even though I had documentation about compliance issues, the VP (Downing) didn’t want to dive into it, and so actually that was the day I decided to resign,” Munna said.

Munna also said when he met one-on-one with Morton to put in his resignation, he didn’t have much to say.

“And I asked him if he would have time in the next month to meet with me about some concerns that maybe he just was not aware of. And [he] acknowledged, yes, sort of, and then that never happened. No exit interview. Nothing,” said Munna.

He added that he barely ever saw Morton during his tenure as the EMS director.

“With the exception of seeing him onstage at our annual back to school stuff for faculty and my resignation when I walked into his office to submit it, I might have seen him face-to-face three times in five years,” said Munna.

DHHS records of issues

Munna had been dealing with issues for a while. Some of them showed up in public documents from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

In December 2020, Munna sent an email to Robert Amerson, the eastern regional education specialist for the NC Office of EMS, transparently detailing issues with CFCC’s EMS Education Plan.

“You know I am always forward with any potential non-compliance issues, as well all should be. I am absolutely ultimately responsible for all items within our Plan, and fully accept that charge,” said Munna.

He then summarized the items that put them in potential violation of the North Carolina Administrative Code for EMS programs, mainly stemming from their CE EMS Education Coordinator. These problems included this person scheduling clinical/field equivalency labs prior to the 50% completion mark, not verifying and signing EMT initial course paperwork packets, allowing a new hire part-time to conduct specific evaluations alone, without any prior instruction on how to complete the evaluations, and not registering students properly for the initial Emergency Medical Response (EMR) course.

On January 4, 2021, the state EMS Office, through Amerson, sent a letter to Chris Nelson, CFCC’s director of continuing education over public safety, explicitly citing a violation of EMT education program requirements – along with the possible violations Munna sent in his December 2020 email.

“CFCC EMS Program has thirty (30) days from the receipt of this letter to address each item and submit a self-imposed corrective action addressing each violation,” Amerson wrote.

But by January 6, 2021, two days later, the Chief of the NC Office of EMS Tom Mitchell sent a letter to Munna stating that CFCC had rectified these issues — and the college remained credentialed as a provider of EMS Education.

“We appreciate the effort of the CFCC team that developed the educational institution application. It represents great work and you all are to be congratulated on a job well done,” said Mitchell.

Lack of communication following car bomb scare

But one of the last straws for Munna is how CFCC responded to a possible pipe bomb in a car in early April 2022.

On this car bomb threat date, April 6, Munna was teaching his students using human cadavers.

Munna wanted to know how serious the threat was so he tried to get answers from Anne Smith, director of Human Resources, as well as Lynn Sylvia, who also works in HR as the director of safety and training. He got no responses from them, nor campus security.

Munna said he and his students were confused and were trying to understand what was going on. He said the college’s response was chaotic – that there wasn’t a uniform lockdown of entrance ways onto campus, or uniform communication for that matter.

Further, there were no official CFCC statements released to the public. CFCC did reportedly send students and staff a text alert to evacuate north campus around 5:00 p.m. At around 7:30 the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office determined there was no threat. The supposed car bomb had been a CFCC student’s film prop.

On April 8, Munna sent an email to Sylvia, and copied Smith, Jim Varrone, department chair of public service, and Mark Council, dean of career and technical education, detailing the timeline and specifically what happened to him and his students.

Munna wanted to know if the college could come up with a plan to secure the cadavers in the future, addressing ethical and safety concerns.

“I mean, we have sharp knives and things out with blood on them. And human cadavers, do we leave them? This potential bomb was on the other side of campus – you let people leave the building, and go to their cars where this supposed bomb was and drive out of that parking lot, but I can't make these rooms safe, and making sure they're not going to smell the next day? I did follow up phone calls and emails to HR and never got an answer. And that was a couple of months before I left,” said Munna.

Munna said there was fallout from his decision to stay and secure the cadavers. That was in part because when a guard with Allied Security, the company that provides campus security for the college, yelled at him and his students, telling them to leave campus. Munna said he told him to calm down and not to speak to them that way. He said he would leave but he was still trying to get clarity on what to do with the cadavers.

After these decisions, according to Munna, HR initially gave him a written warning several weeks later, then backtracked and said it was meant to be a verbal one.

“But then I got nothing about the verbal. Nothing. No other things in writing, no other phone calls,” said Munna.

CFCC again withholds information

When WHQR asked for Munna’s email – the college said, “This information is part of a confidential personnel record.”

It’s worth noting that under the state’s public records law, the college is required to provide the email with any protected personnel information redacted. State law doesn’t allow withholding an entire document because it contains public information commingled with confidential information.

Further, Munna said he sent this email many weeks before the college decided to file a written complaint against him.

If that’s the case, then, according to Amanda Martin, the supervising attorney at the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School said, “I do not believe that Mr. Munna’s timeline of April 6 constitutes a personnel record. The details that are included in his report are an accounting of what happened on campus that day. The personnel statute shields from the public information that ‘relates to the individual's application, selection or non-selection, promotion, demotion, transfer, leave, salary, suspension, performance evaluation, disciplinary action, or termination of employment.’ The timeline Mr. Munna prepared does not fall within any of those categories of information. I think this position is strengthened by the fact that the events occurred while Mr. Munna was acting in a volunteer capacity, not as an employee.”

In his email to upper management, Munna, said for this particular cadaver course, he was “volunteering my time to be on a no-pay contract for E&WD (economic and workforce development).”

WHQR did receive a five-page timeline from Munna, detailing the ways in which the college could improve upon its emergency response.

“The inconsistencies and lack of information from security, coupled with the initial text alert that came out almost 15-minutes after we first noted what was going on, then the factual information about the suspected pipe bomb were all factors in deciding to first meet other ethical and legal standards and to secure the human cadavers, bloodborne pathogens, and dangerous equipment prior to evacuation,” said Munna.

He added, “30-years of my life has been dedicated to all aspects of public safety professions. [...] Over the past four years, it seems most of the time when I express concerns related to safety, negative customer service interactions, securing valuable college assets, or working towards high standards of professional and ethical duties, I get a less than positive response from various individuals.”

Even a couple days after this, there was an issue with the FTE (basically part of counting a course credit) for this cadaver lab. According to Munna, the instructor of record was not present for the entire class. He said later he helped the students gain the skills they needed before the actual start of the dissection the following day after the bomb threat.

“And that’s a violation, you have to have an instructor on record present during the whole class. I brought it up – and he [the instructor] denied not being there. So I don’t know what they finally did but if they claim that FTE [for spring 2022], they could have created a new contract and backdated it for someone else, but I was the only college employee present – and I [came in] on my day off,” said Munna.

‘Can’t have that conversation'

Munna said he expected the college’s leadership to have more professionalism when it came to discussing problems like these.

“I’m not mad at you. We can agree to disagree, but we need to have a conversation about this. If I’m wrong, tell me. If not, we need to address it. You just can’t have that conversation. At least I haven’t been able to.”

Munna said his former CFCC students still call him for support.

He said some of those students said they’re being pressured to opt out of a degree program in favor of a certificate.

“‘Why are you getting a degree? It’s a waste of time and money, just take the certificate class,’ and then these students are all but two semesters done with their associate’s degrees. That’s just sad,” said Munna.

Carolyn McCormick’s departure from Nursing

In a press release on August 30, CFCC touted the associate degree in nursing program was ranked #1 in the state by NursingProgress.org.

Carolyn McCormick, a 22-year CFCC employee, was a part of that success. She was CFCC’s practical nursing program director. She resigned on May 31.

She now works as a nurse manager and simulation coordinator for the Department of Education at the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Colorado. She said she loves her new job.

When Morton was selected for the CFCC presidency after the resignation of Dr. Amanda Lee in December 2017, McCormick said she and some of her colleagues resented his quick ascendency to becoming the leader of the school.

“Because many of us have more degrees and credentials than he does,” said McCormick.

She said Morton only thought about the “bottom line” when it came to paying all the nursing staff appropriately.

“There were 17 people in the nursing division, and all but four people got raises in the division, and it was the four people who had been there like 20-years that didn’t get a raise,” said McCormick.

Moreover, McCormick said her and her staff asked for an adjustment to their salaries. She said they were denied this and were told by Morton, ‘Well, you get your holidays off.’”

According to her, the college had trouble filling nursing instructors, “Because they can’t afford to live on $55,000 a year when they were making way more than that working three days a week at the hospital,” said McCormick.

“We don’t have the faculty. We don’t have the facilities. I would say, ‘Can we boost this person up $5,000?’ ‘No, we’re not doing it.’ But in the same year, he gets a 10% raise. How do you justify that?,” said McCormick.

But Morton, at an August speech to CFCC staff, said, “We're gonna do a bonus hopefully this fall, we will do it somehow with the funding we have, not additional state funding.”

He didn’t mention how much this bonus could possibly be.

Pushing to increase enrollment

McCormick said Morton continued to “push and push and push” to expand the nursing program enrollment, but it was difficult for her nurses to get clinical space at NHRMC. And according to McCormick, one unnamed CFCC leader said to her, “Why don’t you lower your standards to get more students through the nursing program? Is a 100% pass rate on the exam all that necessary?”

She said there’s a certain amount of pride she had in her students and the passing rate on that licensure exam. McCormick said the community relies on CFCC to put out good nurses.

“The Board of Nursing can come in if your licensure doesn’t meet certain requirements, they could eventually close the door, it wouldn’t happen right away, but there are processes,” said McCormick.

At one point, according to McCormick, upper administration said she and the other instructors had to call students who didn’t complete coursework or didn’t register for a semester.

“You had to do this, they initially told us, we had to call, and we were like, ‘No, we don’t have time to call people,” said McCormick. “If a student changes their mind and decides this isn’t for them, we’re literally hounding them to re-enroll, because that’s how we’re going to increase our completion rate.”

She added that there was a push toward getting certificates through continuing education, like Munna mentioned, rather than continuing focus on the degree programs.

A common theme: communication issues

“I felt like I was being taken advantage of by upper administration, we fill out employee surveys, and we say to them, ‘Communication is a problem here.’”

McCormick said she means communication in terms of policy changes to the employee handbook or changes to how they conduct their courses.

“Then they said there’s communication all over this place, but that’s not the communication we need. All the communication is him [Morton] bragging about what he has supposedly done,” said McCormick.

She also said once the spring 2022 employee survey was released, McCormick said her comments weren’t there.

“I mean nobody wanted to participate in it because they are afraid. They are literally afraid of what’s going to happen,” said McCormick.

Like Munna, McCormick said Morton didn’t know who she was – or many people for that matter.

After WHQR’s first round of reporting on CFCC came out in September 2021, one that highlighted suppressed results of the Faculty Association climate survey, Morton started having,‘Chats with the President.’

“Why does the ‘Chat with President’ have to be an appointment? You’ve got to be kidding me, that’s no ‘chat.’ That is, I’m going to vet you before we meet so I can know what you’re all about before you come and ask your question,” said McCormick.

‘Looked right through me’

McCormick said the turning point for her in submitting her resignation was September 21, 2021. She said she worked very hard to help secure a nursing scholarship through CFCC’s Foundation. At the celebration event for scholarship, McCormick said she was ignored by Morton.

“Not once did they ever mention the work I had done – and that was my program. Morton looked over his podium, and said, ‘Anyone else important here?’ And totally looked right through me,” said McCormick.

She said after this she filled out the application for her current job. “It was one thing after another; you can only be slapped in the face so many times.”

McCormick also brought up that she used to have more input into the recipients of the nursing scholarships. And that some of the gifts to donors were odd.

“I do know we gave one of them an engraved Tiffany & Company bowl, because I had to tie the bow. Like, really?” said McCormick.

McCormick said when she officially resigned in the spring, she went to Morton to ask if she could have three days of vacation time, and he denied her request (McCormick cried during the retelling of this).

“I had 195 vacation days after 22 years, and he denied my request,” said McCormick.

She was paid for those dates through her retirement, but the sting is still there for McCormick. She tried to go through HR for support – but said, “human resources is the least human place in that whole building.”

“I’m sorry, I cried because I gave my heart to Cape Fear because I just love teaching – and thought I would retire there, but it comes to a point when you cannot go on anymore. I literally had physical issues, heart palpitations where I just knew, if I didn’t get out of there, I was going to have a heart attack,” said McCormick.

WHQR has reached out to CFCC to discuss Munna’s and McCormick’s accounts. They have yet to respond.

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