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CFCC employees cited pressure to fabricate information prior to accreditation warning, compliance staff 'nonrenewed'

Rachel Keith

Late last year, Cape Fear Community College was put on 'warning' by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which currently accredits the college. Email and personnel records show that this warning followed the removal of key employees who worked on SACS compliance — and concerns that top administrators were asking for fabricated information to help complete a key report for SACS. The college denies these allegations.

In December 2023, officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC, often referred to as ‘SACS’) issued a warning to Cape Fear Community College for significant non-compliance with issues relating to full-time faculty and student achievement. The release about the warning had few details, so WHQR requested additional emails and reports from the college. Those documents show that at least two employees were concerned about the pressure to falsify data and that the college was interested in getting out from under SACS's oversight.

One employee, recounting the situation under oath during a deposition in a civil trial, was asked directly if she was ever asked to "fake" information. Her answer: yes. Another employee, who recently retired, cited issues with the SACS report process as one of several concerns with the college.

CFCC's accreditation warning

CFCC received a warning on its fifth-year report. SACS requires this interim report before reaffirming its ten-year accreditation. SACS must also approve any substantial changes to programs or curricula at colleges and universities. The process during which a college compiles this type of report and SACS reviews it is lengthy, taking upward of two years.

On January 11, 2024, SACS President Belle Wheelan sent the college a letter outlining the problems with their submission. For full-time faculty, Wheelan said the college provided “no evidence that the number of faculty available is sufficient to ensure instructional quality. The institution should provide evidence that it employs an adequate number of full-time faculty to support the institution’s mission and goals.”

CFCC claimed it had adequate faculty, reporting it had "the fourth highest full-time curriculum faculty proportion in the state."

The college also included documentation supporting this claim, including what were known as 'narratives,' which laid out CFCC's approach to hitting key SACS metrics. But SACS found these documents unconvincing.

As a result of SACS’s lingering questions — and the SACS’s board-issued warning — CFCC must submit a “monitoring report” to them by September 8, 2024, showing that it has addressed these issues.

Dr. Deborah Grimes is a SACSCOC substantive change reviewer and is the former SACS liaison for Lenoir Community College.

Grimes told WHQR in December 2023 that the college isn’t necessarily in “trouble” but that “SACS has to be able to say we expect quality. [They’ve] asked [CFCC] to have standards, and [the college] should have policies and procedures; they should be following [them].”

Grimes added that the SACSCOC Board of Trustees ultimately determined that CFCC was put on warning because full-time faculty and student achievement are “core requirements, which means they are attached to federal rules and guidelines. [...] They did not provide enough information that made a committee feel comfortable enough to just give them a monitoring report without a warning.”

WHQR contacted SACS Vice President Dr. Kelli Randall to obtain more information about the warning but has not heard back.

Long-time SACS accreditation veterans ‘non-renewed,’ allegations of attempts to “falsify” data

Email conversations dating back to February 2022 show Vice President Michael Cobb taking the lead on the SACS report. In previous years, former Vice President Dr. Jason Chaffin had led the process. In 2022, Cobb shared duties with Chaffin for reporting faculty staffing levels and student achievement — the two areas SACS would later question.

A few months later, Chaffin was pushed out of college. During the college’s annual contract renewal process — known by employees as “Bloody May” — Chaffin was ‘non-renewed’ and 'walked out’ of his office, a common fate for employees whose contracts are not renewed.

Vice President Brandon Guthrie took Chaffin’s place, overseeing the submission for full-time faculty standards. Cobb was left solely in charge of student achievement.

In a May 2022 email, Cobb wrote to the CFCC employees writing the ‘narratives’ for SACS to “keep the narrative simple, only addressing what the standard is asking, no more, no less.”

Several narrative writers either retired (former Vice President Joanne Ceres, replaced by Terry) or eventually walked out in May 2023, including Jennifer McBride, Mark Council, Lynn Criswell, and Catherine Lee. Nina Taylor was mentioned in an email in May 2022 as a point of contact for FTE compliance (dealing with student enrollment levels). Later that month, she was gone, as was her colleague Bonnie McGlauflin.

The SACS writers who remained at the college were Vice Presidents Sonya Johnson, Anne Smith, and Brandon Guthrie, along with Dean Mary Ellen Naylor, IT Executive Director Jakim Friant, and Executive Director of Capital Projects and Facilities David Kanoy.

Criswell had voiced concerns about the process just a month earlier.

In April 2022, Criswell emailed Chaffin, and CC’d CFCC President Jim Morton, with concerns about Cobb’s instructions on approaching the SACS report.

“I attended Dr. Cobb’s PLO [learning objectives] review session and was told, once again, that I am not allowed to utilize the documented general education competencies as program learning outcomes for the AA [associate in arts], AS [associate in science], and AE [associate in engineering],” she wrote. “I have followed the college’s long-term plan and provided documentation here (linked to file),” she wrote.

Criswell wrote that they had already collected data on specific learning objectives for the past three years, and to change now would be misguided. In her email, she voiced concern that Cobb’s new approach would require her to invent documentation, which she was unwilling to do.

“Dr. Cobb’s renewed directive that I return to prior years and utilize historical data to create alternative documentation would require that I falsify meeting minutes and intervention plans and document progression on goals we did not set. Doing so would be unethical and would jeopardize my professional integrity and endanger the college’s reputation and accreditation status. These are the reasons I am unwilling to fulfill his directive to alter my reporting for prior years,” Criswell wrote.

Criswell asked Chaffin to contact Cobb, who was leading the SACS reporting effort, saying she couldn’t be in the middle of two different approaches to data collection.

Then, Morton weighed in. In early May, he wrote to Cobb — copying Chaffin and Criswell — disputing her claims.

“Obviously, Lynn Criswell is still very confused over the SACS/COC reporting process. The college would never ask anyone to falsify documents as she has alleged. Please hold a meeting with Jason Chaffin and Lynn Criswell to make sure both are clear with reporting expectations. I will be glad to attend the meeting if needed,” Morton wrote.

Cobb said he would arrange the meeting and “create a usable dataset for Lynn’s [Criswell’s] area to use from assessments already completed and housed in Blackboard.”

Criswell wasn't the only employee with concerns. Keenan Jones, chair of the math department and a 27-year employee, was pulled into the SACS report process in the wake of Criswell's removal.

Jones also felt he was being put in a situation of "making up data," specifically with regards to being asked to effectively create and then backdate certain key objectives for classes — required for the SACS report — that didn't exist at the time the classes were announced and students signed up for them.

He pushed back against what he called pressure from Cobb to "fudge, falsify or create data to satisfy his concerns," according to email records.

Related: Former CFCC department chair: 'Who's behind the wheel?'

Jones recently retired, citing the SACS report as one of many issues that troubled him. He told WHQR he had never seen issues like this at the college until the recent administration.

Criswell’s account of the SACS submission

Additional insight into Criswell’s experience with the SACS report and Chaffin’s departure comes from her deposition in the suit against the college filed by former CFCC trustee Ray Funderburk. Criswell was deposed to attest to the events surrounding Funderburk’s removal from the board of trustees.

However, the lengthy deposition, recorded in late February of this year, also details her experience with the college’s SACS reporting process — including her claim that she was asked to falsify supporting materials.

Criswell was asked, “Was there ever an occasion that you were asked, in your opinion, to fake information that was going to be provided to SACS?”

She answered, “Yes.”

Regarding the learning objectives for the college transfer courses, she said in the deposition, “I would have had to go back and pretend that we had set objectives three years ago, and I would have had to involve my faculty because they would have had to be involved in meetings and discussions about continuous improvement over those three years that never occurred because I hadn't been asked for this data yet.”

She also detailed her meeting with Morton, Cobb, and Chaffin.

“Michael [Cobb], at that point, said that he had [provided data] with some other programs, and he was going to use the justification that those programs had maybe been without a program director for a while, and that's why some of the documentation was missing. He said that in front of Jim Morton,” Criswell said.

After a back-and-forth about what data to submit, Criswell recounts that “Jason [Chaffin] finally said, ‘I know how to write this narrative; I'm in the process of working on this; and -- and I will be the one to -- to justify and explain Lynn's process. This was in early May of 2022, and three weeks-ish later, Jason Chaffin was non-renewed.”

Criswell said she saw the writing on the wall for Chaffin.

“I thought it was coming, others who reported to Jason [Chaffin] thought it was coming, simply because he seemed to be excluded from meetings and we could not get information that we needed to be able to effectively do our jobs because Jason was not being involved in all of the meetings anymore. [...] Jason was, again, a faculty member who had multiple roles at the institution, rose through the ranks, was deeply respected by faculty, and disappeared on a Thursday night, I believe, at the end of the [May] board meeting,” Criswell said.

Criswell noted that the SACS report, which takes several years to produce, was essentially finalized the following year, in June of 2023, a month after she was ‘nonrenewed.’

Criswell also said she had heard that Michelle Lee, Morton’s chief of staff, had pressured staff during a meeting of administrative assistants several months before Trustee Ray Funderburk was removed. At the time, Funderburk had already caused friction on the board by asking questions about Morton and several high-level administrative decisions.

Criswell’s assistant, Robin Metty, was present at the meeting and told her that Lee had instructed assistants not to speak to Funderburk, who had been visiting campus earlier that month, to bring any information about him to her directly, and not to talk to each other.

Metty told Criswell that Lee wanted to prevent SACS from discovering any potential discord on the board. Lee allegedly told the assistants, “If SACS were to find out that the Board of Trustees and the president were not in accord, the institution would lose its accreditation, and that would lead to major job losses.”

Metty confirmed Criswell’s account with WHQR and added that Lee said this loss of SACS accreditation would mean a loss in funding, which would spell job loss. WHQR could not identify any SACS requirement or policy under which disagreements between a trustee and president would lead to the college losing accreditation.

Speaking for CFCC, Hallingse disputed this account, saying that Lee “only provided an overview of CFCC governance. This information did not reference any member of our Board of Trustees.”

It's worth noting that former board chair Bill Cherry, whom the New Hanover County Commission reappointed unanimously last summer for another four-year term, made a claim similar to Lee's during Funderburk’s removal hearing in March 2023. Calling Funderburk a “rogue trustee,” Cherry claimed without evidence that Funderburk could “risk CFCC’s accreditation with SACS.”

CFCC may have seen an opportunity with House Bill 8

After Criswell left in June 2023, Cobb introduced himself in an email to SACS Vice President Dr. Kelli Randall, telling her he worked at Brunswick Community College before CFCC and “successfully navigated a 10-year reaffirmation review and a 5-year interim review.”

Cobb wrote to Randall, “We’ve have [sic] a bit of change at the college and I am in the process of identify [sic] additional people to serve on on-site/off-site committees.”

Cobb — along with Guthrie and Dean Lucinda McNamara — who replaced Chaffin and Criswell, respectively, kept working on the report’s submission.

On September 9, 2023, Cobb emailed Morton to tell him he officially delivered the SACS 5th-year report, to which Morton responded, “Excellent, and thanks for delivering ahead of schedule!”

During this time, SACS officials said they needed additional information from the college on their report. The initial warning letter to CFCC noted, “[they] fail[ed] to make timely and significant progress toward correcting the deficiencies that led to the findings of non-compliance; or failure to comply with SACSCOC policies and procedures.”

Then House Bill 8 was passed. The bill included a provision requiring community colleges to switch accreditation organizations after each 10-year cycle. However, there is a caveat: if the college can’t get accreditation from another organization it can stay with its current accreditor for another cycle.

It’s possible CFCC saw an opportunity with the legislature’s changes to college and university accrediting agencies.

Cobb emailed Randall on October 13, saying, “You have no doubt heard the news that the North Carolina Legislature and Senate have passed legislation requiring all public universities to change their accreditor every accreditation cycle. While our system office Raleigh sorts all that out, I am wondering how it will affect my institution’s attendance at the upcoming annual meeting in December.”

This is the meeting where it was announced publicly that the SACS Board put CFCC on a warning.

In his October email, Cobb told Randall the college was not working on providing follow-up information for SACS, and suggested they might look for a different organization to provide accreditation for CFCC.

“We are not currently preparing our re-affirmation report. I had encouraged numerous people to attend the annual meeting, largely because we lost a number of folks to retirement and leaving to other institutions. It seems that those resources may be better allocated to searching for a new accreditor – whoever that may be,” Cobb wrote.

Here, Cobb appears to refer to long-time employees who either retired, left for other jobs, or were removed during “Bloody May,” when administrators and other staff are often “non-renewed.”

Additionally, Cobb wrote to Randall in October 2023, “One item ‘left on the table,’ as it were. We completed our Fifth-Year Interim Report last fall. While their [sic] were no findings or recommendations, we were asked to give additional/clarifying information. Does any of this legislative action in North Carolina change or complicate any of that?”

Cobb’s email suggests that SACS asked for more information after CFCC submitted its report. Emails produced by the college in response to a public records request did not shed any additional light on what was incomplete or unclear in CFCC’s report.

Cobb contacted another SACS employee, Sheila Moffett, four days later to ask how the legislation would affect the college.

At the CFCC Trustee meeting on March 28, 2024, the North Carolina Community College System recommended that CFCC continue with SACS for the next accreditation cycle. The board voted unanimously to approve this recommendation.

Morton responds to the ‘warning’ in writing

President Jim Morton received an email on November 21 with the subject line: “Upcoming SACSCOC Board of Trustees Actions.”

Randall wrote she would like to meet with Morton at the SACS conference on December 3 about “an action item before the Board. I would like to share with you the Board’s decision on your institution’s action item before the decision is disclosed publicly on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.”

Morton responded that he looked forward to meeting with Randall.

On December 4, 2023, Morton sent an email following his meeting with her, saying, “Per our conversation, we submitted a response in early 2023 addressing the concerns brought to our attention from the review. Unfortunately, we apparently did not demonstrate well enough to the committee our process on determining adequate full-time faculty.”

In response to the lack of student achievement data, Morton wrote, “This [broken] link was reestablished today and is functioning properly. In the future, we will be providing screenshots and other documents to support our position and avoid sending links.”

Morton reiterated that the college had fixed what SACS had asked for: “I just wanted to clarify that we did respond to the concerns from the review in a timely manner and were under the impression we had fully satisfied these concerns.”

The next step for CFCC is submitting a monitoring report by September 2024. The SACS Board in December 2024 will decide whether (1) to remove CFCC from its warning without an additional report (2) to continue accreditation, continue the warning, or request another monitoring report, with the possibility of a special committee coming to CFCC (3) to continue with accreditation and put the institution on probation, request another monitoring report, and sending a special committee (4) to remove the institution from membership.

CFCC responses to WHQR’s questions about warning

CFCC President Jim Morton and Vice President Michael Cobb declined an interview, but Christina Hallingse, CFCC’s director of media relations, responded to WHQR’s questions via email. Additionally, WHQR contacted all members of the trustees and has yet to hear back.

On Monday, Morton emailed staff an update about the SACS accreditation. The email came four months after the college was CFCC was warned by SACS, but just several days after WHQR asked for an interview, last Thursday.

It informed the college that Morton had assembled a compliance review committee consisting of himself, Chief of Staff Michelle Lee, Vice Presidents Brandon Guthrie, Sabrina Terry, Sonya Johnson, Provost of North Campus Shawn Dixon, and Deans Lucinda McNamara and Mary Ellen Naylor.

He added that the college has retained the services of Dr. Mary Kirk, a consultant and former Vice President of SACS, to assist with its upcoming monitoring report. WHQR asked the college to send the amount the consultant is being paid and was asked to submit a public records request for the information.

Morton also announced that Guthrie is the new SACS liaison —meaning Cobb was removed from that role — and that “moving forward [he] will continue to provide updates to the campus community.”

Links and other reporting

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