© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Former CFCC math chair being interviewed on CFCC's podcast — Sea Devil Sessions.
Former CFCC math chair interviewed on CFCC's podcast — Sea Devil Sessions. The college has since taken down this interview.

Keenan Jones worked for Cape Fear Community College for over 27 years. Jones started his tenure teaching heating and air-conditioning technology, where he learned he liked changing lives. He recently retired, and spoke with WHQR about his experience working at CFCC and his concerns about the college's future.

Jones got his start teaching almost thirty years ago — and said he loved the job, and having a positive impact on students' lives.

“It was a job, but it became a passion and a career. I had a great first 10-15 years,” he said.

Related: CFCC employees cited pressure to fabricate information prior to accreditation warning, compliance staff ‘nonrenewed’

‘Who is behind the wheel?’

Jones said the college offered to recognize his years of service at the January CFCC Board of Trustees meeting. He didn’t go because he didn’t want to condone their leadership over the college.

“I knew they would do a little dog and pony show. My pride is how I've changed lives. I can't look them in the eye with what I've seen going on in the last five years,” he said.

What he’s seen over this time is long-time veterans of the college being walked out by upper administration during ‘Bloody May’ — that's what faculty call the annual period of time when contracts are “non-renewed,” and employees are often escorted from the building by security — as well as the CFCC’s Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accreditation warning and the college reimbursing the state for miscalculating FTE. The latter two are things that Jones said he’d never seen before in his nearly 30 years at the college.

“We know who's steering this vehicle,” he said, referring to Trustee Zander Guy's comments at the January and March meetings praising President Jim Morton’s leadership.

So you walk [former Vice President Dr. Jason] Chaffin out, and then we get in trouble with SACS? Who's got the steering wheel? We walked the audit department out. We have an audit issue with FTEs; who's got the steering wheel? All those things lie somewhere,” Jones said.

Jones also said he didn’t understand why Morton is one of the highest-paid community college presidents in the state. His $361,296 salary is even higher than that of the current system president, Dr. Jeff Cox.

“With all these errors,” Jones said, “which way is the college going?”

During Morton’s tenure, Jones remained steadfast in saying that the faculty and staff were “doing a great job” and telling them to “hold their heads up high.”

He also said he doesn’t understand why the trustees, in his opinion, have looked the other way with how the college is doing business.

“Are they okay with walking people out? We know who's driving this thing, and it's being fueled by the board,” Jones said.

He also mentioned the board's recent removal of former CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk, who has since sued the college.

"You ask questions, and you’re out," Jones said.

To Jones, it all comes down to how the president and the trustees view leadership: “You're not in charge of your people. You're charged to take care of your people.”

Another issue arose right before Jones retired: about 50 faculty members had to pay back a collective $32,000 before the December holidays due to a payroll issue. Many faculty members asked payroll and human resources for a written explanation, but the college refused.

“You don't mess with somebody's money; you don't mess with somebody's family,” Jones said. “This is unusual, so I called Vice President Christina Greene. Talk to the VP, [she] is like, ‘We made a mistake.’ And I said, ‘What was this about not emailing?’”

Jones said Greene told him, “It was a direct order from the President, and we're not allowed to email anybody on this. [...] He’s tired of emails linked to the press.”

Asked about what Greene allegedly told Jones, the college referred WHQR to early statements in which it claimed it wanted to directly contact employees impacted by the payment clawback by phone since it was an urgent issue; however, internal communications from the college showed human resources employees explicitly discouraging email communication.

CFCC has a history of avoiding putting information in writing, which would be subject to public records law. Vice President Brandon Guthrie recently admitted that the college avoided emails amid a student complaint process. During the fallout from former president Dr. Ted Spring's resignation, CFCC hired a PR firm that explicitly advised staff to avoid using their official work emails.

Jones asked, if the payroll issue was an honest mistake, what was the college hiding?

“What are you worried about? If you're not guilty of something, you should be an open book," Jones said. "We work for the public. We're funded by taxpayers. How can we hide anything?”

CFCC's board of trustees has did not publicly discuss either the SACS accreditaiton warning or the payroll issues after they happened; they don't appear to have discussed them since.

“All they're worried about is [Morton’s] PowerPoint presentations, and enrollment’s up and when it appears stagnant. It's like what you see is not reality,” Jones said. “If you take responsibility, if you take all the credit, then you have to take some of the negative, right?”

‘Bloody May’: Walking veteran employees out

Jones said the last time CFCC felt like a family was under Dr. Eric McKeithan's leadership.

“I would see him out in the public, and he could call me by name,” he said.

He said there was a void after McKeithan left, saying that in his first 15 years, he didn’t know anyone who was escorted off campus before their contract ended.

“I was talking to one of the deputies standing by for security when they were walking people out [in May], and he was like, ‘Man, it's a tough day. I can't believe y'all work under these situations,'" Jones said.

Jones said he couldn’t get over the administration walking out the SACS expert, former Vice President Dr. Jason Chaffin, in May 2022. Chaffin reluctantly agreed to sign a severance agreement, which paid him until August, with a nondisparagement clause, which caused Jones to wonder — “What’s the state community college budget code [for those]?”

“When you lead with fear and money, what kind of moral people are you going to get?” he said.

He was also upset about longtime veteran employees who were “non-renewed,” including former administrative assistant Robin Metty, and Deans Catherine Lee and Lynn Criswell.

“Catherine Lee, when Morton had walked her out, she had already told one of the VPs that she was going to retire in December; they did it anyway,” he said. “It's a firing camouflaged as a reorganization. So we will reorganize: get rid of the audit department, [for example], and what happens within a short period we have to send money back,” he said.

Ultimately, Jones said, the “toxic” atmosphere, as he describes it, makes employees “do their jobs and try to fly below the radar. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, because what happens when you stick your neck out? You might be looking for a job; you might be wiped out. So, there's no doubt that the morale is terrible,” he said.

When WHQR asked CFCC’s Director of Media Relations Christina Hallingse to respond to the allegations of a continued toxic work environment, she said this was not a question and didn’t answer further. HQR had earlier asked Morton for an interview, but he declined.

SACS accreditation issues

Jones said during his over twenty years of working at CFCC, he never remembered a time when CFCC put on a “warning” and reiterated that the board's failure to address the SACS accreditation is “unacceptable because it’s the way we get our federal money. If we're not accredited, we got issues,” he said.

However, a CFCC spokesperson said the college is still accredited and they adhere to the SACS standards.

Some of these SACS issues even landed at Jones’s feet. It was over the learning objectives for some of CFCC’s math courses — something the college would have to report as part of 'narratives,' included in a report; essentially, these are part of the college's demonstration of how they are gauging what they're teaching.

In an email dated August 21, 2023, Dean Lucinda McNamara — who replaced Criswell — asked Jones to pull objectives and assignments for SACS.

Jones responded, “Dean Criswell was handling that for us. This looks a little iffy to me. I think we should have had the PLSOs [program learning student outcomes] before we started teaching. To go back now and find data seems like we are making data up.”

McNamara replied to Jones, “Yes, I understand Dean Criswell was implementing a plan. Unfortunately, I now have to patch up what was left behind.”

Fast-forward to an email McNamara sent to Jones on November 17, 2023. She asked him to confirm an objective for Math 110, namely, “determining probabilities and expected values and using them to assess risk and make informed decisions.”

Jones responded, “Per our earlier communication, we were to have labs for 143, 263, and 271 with no mention of 110. If we were to have to have a lab for 110 it would probably be on ratios and proportions. [...] Below is the course description [...] and probability is not included.”

Essentially, Jones thought he was being asked to write something about course that was not true.

Later in the month, McNamara emailed Jones to tell him to send additional objectives — per a request from Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning, & Compliance Dr. Michael Cobb, who was serving as the point person working with SACS to compile their report.

Jones wasn’t happy, writing on November 27, 2023, “To send this email with 3 weeks in the semester is unacceptable. Dr. Cobb’s concerns should have been addressed in early September when we set up these labs. This seems like a moving target.”

He reiterated, “In Math 110 we do not teach probability, so there will be no assignment that best aligns with that objective. I will not fudge, falsify or create data to satisfy his concerns, it is against my morals and ethics. I will not ask the 110 instructors to fudge, falsify or create data to satisfy his concerns, because I will never ask my co-workers to do something that I won’t.”

McNamara wrote that she was not asking him to falsify data but said she picked a common learning objective for that course, then proceeded to ask Jones, “What would you suggest is a common objective that could be measured for MAT 110?” She then acknowledged that this was a quick turnaround for him.

Jones told WHQR of the SACS issues, “The problem is, it wasn't standard. Not everybody asked the same thing. So if you want good data, you would want to have the same question to everybody, the same lab, or the same procedure.”

For him, the college data provided to SACS should be a true measure of students’ knowledge, not random objectives assembled at the last minute.

“In my opinion, it could be run a lot different[ly] from this, from the information they want from us, it's a pride thing. It's a show-off thing, with these objectives, let's see if we're teaching them, or whether you’re not improving or trying to improve,” he said.

Jones also responded to McNamara's December 6 email notifying staff that CFCC had received the accreditation warning.

McNamara initially wrote, “Is it disappointing to receive this warning? Yes. [...] One session I attended I found particularly enlightening spoke about the collaboration of faculty’s role in assessment. [...] Chairs and faculty members will be meeting in late January/February to discuss choosing meaningful learning outcomes moving forward.”

Jones wrote back, “Thanks for the email, but it never crossed my mind that this was an instructor issue. [...] Employees have been walked out, I mean re-organized, for far less than this. I wonder if this reorganization will happen with a 30 day notice or will it wait until May?” he said. “Maybe if the college spent more time on SACS documents and less time on rewriting the handbook, this situation would have never happened.”

Putting students first?

Aside from changes in leadership at CFCC, he said he’d like to see less reliance on pushing certificates instead of programs. Jones said he was concerned that could water down the value of a two-year program degree from the college. It's not the first time a former CFCC employee has suggested the college was pressuring students to pursue certificates over programs.

“[Those certificate holders] didn’t graduate from a program; they just got a certain small set of skills, and it's gonna hurt the graduates of the year program being able to get a job,” he said.

Hallingse responded to WHQR, “As you are aware, Cape Fear Community College offers a multitude of opportunities for students to meet their educational and career goals, one of which is certificate programs. These programs allow students to receive a credential quickly, enabling them to enter the workforce or expand on an existing career opportunity. CFCC does not prioritize credentials over any other pathway.”

He’d also like to focus more on what students are learning, rather than be hyper-focused on the funding they get for full-time equivalency (FTE).

“All it is is FTEs. How can we get money in here, and how can we get enrollment up? I get it; we're running it as a business, but in years past, it was run as an educational facility first, and then be fiscally responsible for that,” he said.

He takes issue with overemphasizing “student success” numbers, meaning grade passing rates — not necessarily on the skills students gain to be workforce-ready.

“Are we gonna look at the outliers on both hands? In other words, if everybody in his or her class is failing, is there something going on with that instructor? Is it the same if somebody is always passing people? Are we gonna look at that too, because that's an outlier,” Jones said.

He said he remembered a meeting where Vice President Michael Cobb focused his speech on the idea that if the college reached a specific ‘student success rate,’ it would receive an additional $200,000 from the state.

“It's a situation where we're just numbers. [...] I have standards. If you don't have standards, what are we doing?”

Jones remembered a story of what he thinks is true student success. One of his former students kept failing but returned to learn from him.

“He's now running three heat and air crews. He's a successful businessman. Now, that is student success. If I had passed him that first time, there's no way, in my opinion, that he'd have been anywhere near what he is today. That's the pride that I took," Jones said.

As math department chair, he said he was pushed to hire more part-time instructors — sometimes ones who weren’t even living in the community but teaching online from another state.

“These guys are teaching 12 classes—who's gonna give them more time? And who knows our students better than our current faculty? And if I have a problem, what can I do? I can walk down the hall,” Jones said.

However, Jones said he liked the flexibility online courses gave some working students, and said they were pushed to have more in-person classes for an odd reason.

“And going back to the traditional Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes, one of the reasons I heard one of the VPs, Vice President Brandon Guthrie, say in a meeting was, ‘Well, on Fridays, the coffee shop’s not doing enough business.’ And I'm like, ‘I don't really care what the coffee shop does,’ so I don't know what the situation was there," Jones said.

Hallingse said this account was “not accurate.” She said CFCC schedules are “designed to accommodate student convenience.”

Jones said it was difficult to go on record after retiring and didn’t make the decision lightly.

“I'm doing it for the right reason. I want the institution to be here for another 20 to 30 years, I want to be accredited, and I want students to come there, and there are great instructors here who can change their lives," he said.

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