Following an investigative report on the toxic workplace allegations at CFCC by WECT reporter Ann McAdams, then-President of the North Carolina Community College System Peter Hans called on the college to conduct an independent, third-party climate survey. The college’s Board of Trustees declined to do so.
WECT’s investigative report: Top executives at CFCC say President Morton has created toxic culture
Then, last fall, WHQR conducted its own investigation on issues at the college, including the administration’s refusal to release the results of a climate survey conducted by the Faculty Association (FA), a formalized part of the college. The survey showed serious concerns about the administration and Board of Trustees, but the administration cited low participation (about 35% for full-time faculty).
After WHQR’s report, faculty called on the administration to finally heed Hans’s request and conduct a third-party survey – with the hope being that an independent, outside consultant or agency would get an objective view of the climate on campus.
But, despite initially promising to do that, CFCC’s administration ultimately chose a simple web-based survey platform, with questions written not by a third-party but by unidentified faculty and staff — questions that did not include the leadership of President Jim Morton or the Trustees.
However, the survey’s multiple-choice options did reveal that employees feel CFCC is a safe and clean campus but have more mixed results on opportunities for job growth, college-wide communication, and how the college values its faculty and staff.
Some of the logistics and much of the thinking behind CFCC’s approach to the climate survey remains opaque because, despite being a public institution, the college declined to comment on any of WHQR’s questions about the survey or its process, as did the Board of Trustees, in particular Board Chair Bill Cherry and Trustees Deloris Rhodes and Deborah Dicks Maxwell.
In addition, CFCC’s policies make it difficult to get input from employees directly. The college’s media policy reads, “[a]ll media interviews with college personnel must be approved by the Community Relations Office ahead of time. When contacted by members of the media, employees should notify the Community Relations Office first and respond to questions only when they have sufficient information to give factual, accurate responses.”
Further, the college has outright banned members of the FA to speak to the media about concerns as faculty, with a policy that states, “[o]fficers shall be prohibited from responding to requests from media outlets for the purpose of making a statement on behalf of faculty.”
CFCC has been silent for half a year: the college and the Board of Trustees have not provided official comments for any of WHQR’s stories since September 2021. The only exception was Trustee Jimmy Hopkins in September, who has not attended in-person any BOT meetings since then. Hopkins was a no-show at bi-monthly meetings in September, November, January, and March.
The survey’s creation
In the wake of WHQR’s investigation of the college on continuing an alleged hostile working environment, a suppressed Faculty Association (FA) climate survey, quiet changes made to the employee handbook, one that removed the way to file a grievance against the president, and a general lack of transparency and accountability measures, the college’s Faculty Association decided it was time President Jim Morton should commit to an independent third party to conduct a staff climate survey.
But the Board of Trustees allowed President Jim Morton and his staff to draw up their own climate survey to give to full-time employees in March 2022.
WHQR received minutes from the FA meetings from September 2021 until March 2022, which sheds light on what the faculty expected from the college’s climate survey – and how they ended up in the dark about its development.
According to the college’s faculty association minutes from September 2021, even before the heated exchange between Morton and Board of Trustee Jonathan Barfield about the need for doing a survey, Faculty Association President Dr. Eric Brandon “had asked the President’s Executive Team in the spring and again over the summer to consider a third-party survey for staff and faculty – all CFCC employees – as had been suggested by Peter Hans, [President of the North Carolina Community College system].”
It appears that approximately all 30 members who were in attendance at this September FA meeting, voted unanimously on the following statement to officially send to Morton: “In order to increase both trust and transparency at CFCC, the CFCC Faculty Association requests that CFCC engage in an independent third-party to conduct a thorough climate survey of all CFCC employees.”
In preparation for this meeting, Brandon said in an email on September 6, 2021, to Rhonda Franklin, secretary of the FA, and Kristina Mazzarone, who at the time was a chemistry instructor and has since been appointed director of the college’s Center of Professional Excellence, that he had been advocating for this survey long before the September 2021 BOT meeting.
Brandon said, “I stated the need for a third-party survey at the CFCC Board of Trustees meeting on March 25, 2021. I recommended it to President Morton at [the] April 9, 2021, FA Officers/CFCC Executive Team meeting. I repeated this recommendation to President Morton in person in August 2021. Also, I am assuming that questions about the 2020 FA Climate Survey will come up here.”
At this September FA meeting, the faculty also said they “may want to clarify the terms of third-party and vet the survey company,” and that the third-party survey would “help with legal issues, objectivity, and trust and transparency.”
CFCC did not do that.
The September FA minutes also state that Brandon met with Chair Bill Cherry and Vice-Chair Bruce Shell and “repeated the need for the utility of a third-party survey.” The minutes stated, “[Trustees] were not overly enthusiastic about the idea but did not dismiss it.”
In an email on September 17, 2021, before the September 23 BOT meeting, Brandon submitted the official request for a third party survey for Morton to approve, but when this discussion came up at the Trustee meeting, Morton had no plans to advance the FA’s request – or even discuss it. During this meeting, most of the trustees’ questions about the survey were first directed at Brandon.
It was only when Barfield started asking Morton questions that he began to entertain the idea of the survey. Morton cited that previous climate surveys “never had any value to them,” and that people are ready “to attack” because of their frustrations with the pandemic. He also said before the pandemic, when employees responded to prior staff surveys that they were “just complaining” about things like parking.
In the October FA minutes, Brandon said of the BOT September meeting experience, “five trustees asked me questions about the request for a third-party survey. After answering these questions, I sat down, but the discussion among the trustees continued with more joining in, including President Morton.”
Brandon continued, “No official action by the entire board was taken on the matter, but Mr. Barfield (a trustee and a New Hanover County commissioner) ended the discussion by stating he would have someone in the HR department reach out to CFCC with details about how the county conducts such surveys of county employees and what it costs.”
But even by the October 14th FA meeting, Morton still hadn’t reached out to Brandon or the FA on the status of the third-party survey.
“Dr. Brandon indicated that he had not yet followed up with President Morton in order to give the administration and the BOT time to work out a process. No follow-up questions by faculty were posed,” according to meeting minutes.
But about a month later, in November, according to the FA minutes, “President Morton was looking at a couple of possibilities but wanted to get the most effective survey in terms of length and content. No follow-up questions were asked by board members at that time.” Brandon referred here to the November 17 BOT when members asked no questions about the survey’s development.
Further, the November FA minutes stated, “Faculty suggested that FA be persistent in requesting the survey. Dr. Brandon indicated that he planned to readdress the survey after giving the BOT time to act on their directive to CFCC administration.”
Through a public records request for emails, there was evidence of two survey input meetings. One was on January 6, 2022, invitees were Sonya Johnson, Vice President of Marketing and Community Relations; William Gutherie, the Dean of the Arts and Humanities department; Digital Marketing Analyst Erin Fabian; Media Specialist Antonio Arteaga-Paredes; Director of Military Business Development Donna Warren; Senior Director of the Financial Aid Department Rachel Cavenaugh, FA Vice President Tim Fuss; and Michael Cobb, the Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning, & Compliance.
In the correspondence about the meeting, it says, “We’d like to get your input on a campus climate survey. Thank you!”
The other input meeting on January 10 had invited Johnson, Arteaga-Paredes, Cobb – and the addition of Program Director of Chemical Technology Tracy Holbrook; Program Director of Health Fitness Science Allison Nye; and Health Science Admissions Support Specialist Rebecca Verreen. The invitation read, “Meeting to discuss to upcoming climate survey and to get input.”
When WHQR asked for the documentation and/or minutes for these meetings, the college declined, saying only, “there are no documents responsive to this request.”
Come the February 2022 FA meeting, “Dr. Brandon reported that the administration has formed a committee to explore a third-party group for a faculty/staff campus survey. [He noted that the survey is an important project and if suitable, he will complete it and encourage everyone to do so […] The rollout is unclear but quite possibly sometime this semester.”
Brandon was not a part of these survey committee meetings, but FA Vice President Tim Fuss was and said only this to the FA: “The committee is working to broaden the survey categories and taking other steps to ensure anonymity.”
On the first day of March, the survey was finally launched – although not in the third-party format for which faculty had long asked.
On March 2, a day after the launch, Vice President for Academic Affairs Jason Chaffin sent out an email stating, “With spring break approaching, we want to remind you to complete the CFCC Climate Survey. […].”
The college’s spring break was March 7-11. The survey would close on March 14.
Through emails the college sent about the survey, the company chosen was finally revealed, Alchemer, formerly known as SurveyGizmo.
According to emails sent from Brandon to all the CFCC faculty dated March 3 and March 14, “The CFCC administration is using a third party, Alchemer, to host this survey.”
Alchemer is not a third-party survey company, in that it did not create the questions or analyze the results in-hosue. In an email sent on March 1 from an undisclosed representative of the college said it was the staff who created and wrote the 27-question survey: “We appreciate the time and effort of the faculty and staff members who helped develop this survey.”
It was also unclear how, or whether, Alchemer was protecting respondents from possible blowback or retaliation for their survey responses. Neither CFCC nor Alchemer have responded to requests from WHQR on exactly how the survey results were kept confidential and anonymous.
The college paid for a yearly subscription to Alchemer, costing $2,700. This subscription is used for other administrative tasks on campus and was used to conduct the survey. And a company representative said that the service agreement defines the company’s obligations to the college.
Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness Michael Cobb sent an email to an Alchemer representative on March 24 asking for the contract of the service agreement with the company after WHQR requested to see it.
In the correspondence, Cobb said he was looking for the initial contract the college signed with the company when Alchemer was known as SurveyGizmo: “It was long before my time, and the oldest record that I have been able to retrieve dates back to November 2018. It was only an invoice.”
Who took the survey
The first inkling that survey results were complete came from the FA March 2022 minutes: “[Dr. Brandon] indicated that the final participation seemed substantial. The survey committee compiled and issued the survey, but some important questions were included concerning respect and communication.”
At the March BOT meeting, after the FA March meeting, Morton reported, “We did have 252 responses out of about 600 employees, which 42% came from faculty responses, staff represents about 38.5 [%] responses. 19.5 [%] responses from leadership.”
From this comparison, the CFCC climate survey appears to roughly represent the faculty population – 42% of survey respondents were faculty, who make up 46% of CFCC employees.
However, college staff and supervisors appear to have been overrepresented in the study – 38.5% of responses were staff, who make up 16% of employees, and 19.5% of responses were from leadership, who make up a much smaller percentage of employees (regardless of how you categorize leadership, including or not including department heads, etc.).
The survey did have a better response rate than the suppressed FA climate survey from 2020 – but both had less than 50% participation. Ultimately, about 43% of the college’s full-time staff answered the survey, as there were 252 respondents out of 580 full-time employees. The 2020 Faculty Association climate survey – whose results were not subsequently released by the college – had a full-time faculty response rate of 35%.
No part-time staff nor faculty were included in the survey.
From the 27-question online survey, a majority of respondents said that CFCC “is a safe campus,” “provides adequate opportunities for professional development,” – and “[they] are proud to work at CFCC.”
For each question, respondents could choose between ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neutral’, ‘disagree’, and ‘strongly disagree.’ For this analysis, WHQR associated ‘strongly agree’ with ‘agree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ with ‘disagree’.
For the statement, “I feel that I have job security.” About a quarter of those who answered disagreed. About 60% say they agreed.
As for whether “There are growth opportunities at CFCC,” about 57% of employees disagreed with that statement, and only 39% agreed.
It was more evenly split between ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ for “Information is communicated clearly throughout the College,” about 43% of respondents agreed and 36% disagreed.
For the statement, “CFCC values its faculty and staff,” only about half agreed (48%) and 36% disagreed.
There were no questions evaluating the leadership of the president and the Board of Trustees, which contrasts with the 2020 Faculty Association climate survey.
At the March BOT meeting, Morton only specifically addressed the responses to the campus safety question.
“Do you feel CFC’s [sic] campus and safe? ‘Agree’, ‘strongly agree’, ‘neutral’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly disagree’. When you add up, ‘strongly agree’ with the statements and ‘agree’ and ‘neutral’, which I think is all approval, we basically have 85% approval, pretty good, or certainly, of course, we had 11% ‘disagree’, 4% ‘strongly disagree,” Morton said.
Morton did appear to have the wrong numbers for negative responses, the actual numbers were 3.6% ‘disagree’ and .8% ‘strongly disagree’, so it’s unclear what Morton is referring to with 11% ‘disagree’ and 4% ‘strongly disagree’.
And for all of the survey questions, Morton said he equated neutral with approval.
The last survey question asked for respondents to “provide suggestions for improvement at CFCC.”
According to WHQR’s analysis of the close to 200 submitted comments, roughly 11% were overtly positive about the college; about 41% were overtly negative; and about 51% were either neutral or the respondent didn’t leave a comment.
For example, Respondent 50 said, “Create an atmosphere that is transparent and allows people to use skills they have instead of being scared to do something for fear of being replaced, or worse, being let go and never replaced.”
Respondent 80 said, “It would be nice to feel some job security and not feeling like we are all going to lose our jobs every year. No one will feel comfortable giving suggestions if they think they will lose their job.”
“The BOT and President and Upper-Administration are nontransparent and have created a culture of fear and disrepair amongst the faculty. […],” said Respondent 160.
Respondent 124 called out issues with the college’s hiring process, “Our HR department is a mess and is ripe for a lawsuit. Use hiring committees for important positions, like upper management and faculty. […] Stop promoting people internally without hiring committees, […]put people on hiring committees who understand and have experience with the positions they’re hiring for, instead of random members of staff […].”
Another respondent, 175, mentioned the same: “[…] Also all job postings should be posted and employees/faculty shouldn’t be “slid” into positions. […]”
Respondent 95 shows there are some respondents who were appreciative of college – but the person does call out employees who have critiques of leadership: “CFCC is an awesome place to work and our President is incredible! There are some miserable people that still work here that try to cause issues. […] I stand behind him 100 percent and have never felt more secure in my job […].”
Respondent 148 said, “I enjoy my job and working at CFCC.”
Further one respondent, 207, said that the media unfairly treats the college: “I’m not sure what is to be gained by reporters or employees that seek to undermine the progress we’re making without highlighting the successes we’re having.”
President’s response to the results
The president sent the results out to staff on April 12. That’s directly after WHQR contracted with The First Amendment Clinic at Duke University Law School to get the results of the survey, with the comments unredacted, when the college tried to delay the release of the results (which is prohibited by state law).
At the March BOT meeting, Morton said that since “there was a commitment to the survey being anonymous, we kind of go through these suggestions and put them out, but we got to redact a lot of personal information – and it’s going to take some time.”
Representatives of Duke’s First Amendment Clinic made sure if the college were to redact any comments that they would have to cite the reason and/or statute for the redaction.
The comments were then released without any redaction, except in one case when someone left their name next to their comment.
In Morton’s email to staff he touched on four major takeaways: salaries, Blackboard Ultra, communication, and his open-door policy.
For salaries, Morton said faculty salaries have been increasing over the past three years, with the college being rated 20th out of 58 community colleges in 2020-2021. An improvement from 2018-2019 when it was ranked 25th. For staff salaries, that rank is 42 out of 58, an improvement from 46 out of 58 in 2018-2019.
Morton bolded in his email to employees, “It is important to remember the NC General Assembly is responsible for providing salary increases for state-funded faculty and staff positions.”
But in the same email, Morton took credit for a January 2021 raise for CFCC employees, writing “I was able to provide a 2 percent increase to all faculty and staff on top of the legislative increase.”
Although not mentioned in his email, Morton also received a 10% raise from the BOT. His salary is now close to $286,000.
Morton also told employees that “enrollment has a direct correlation to our annual budget. The higher our enrollment is, and the more students we retain, the more funding CFCC receives. You play a vital role in securing this funding.”
In some of the comments, faculty voiced being upset over the rollout and quality of Blackboard Ultra. Morton said, “I know this has not been an easy transition. The college is committed to helping faculty and students adapt to this new platform.”
On the topic of communication in his email, Morton said over the past few years, they’ve “made many efforts to improve. […]If you’re wondering what’s going on at the College, please review [the College Council and Board of Trustee minutes].”
After WHQR’s September reporting, the Trustees did start live-streaming their meeting videos; however, the videos aren’t uploaded afterward for the community to view. There are also complaints of poor sound quality – and difficulty loading and streaming the videos.
Further, there have been inaccuracies in the draft minutes written by Executive Director of the President’s Office Michelle Lee. Notably, there is the lack of accounting for the former student body president PJ Eby’s speech to the board.
There are also the draft minutes from March, which record Morton as saying “quantitative results of the survey were positive with 85% falling into the categories of ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, and ‘neutral’.” But WHQR’s audio recording of the meeting showed that Morton was referencing only one question, about safety, in particular. Further, the overall survey results do not show these percentages.
The March draft minutes also report Morton saying, “Communication is still an issue and the college will be looking at ways to improve this college-wide.” Morton was referring to the communication about the rollout of Blackboard Ultra that could have been better, not a campus-wide change in communication.
Government minutes, according to Stein’s Open Government Guide, are typically an accounting of what goes on during a meeting, not a place to add additional context that wasn’t said on record: “Every public body is required to keep full, accurate minutes of all portions of all official meetings, including closed sessions. Minutes may be kept in writing, or in the form of audio or video recordings.”
Morton ended his email to staff by saying that if faculty or staff want to speak to him “to please consider attending one of the ‘Chat with the President’ sessions offered monthly or call my office for an appointment. I am always happy to hear your thoughts, concerns, and ideas.”
But according to respondent 173, this might not work as intended, “Since instructors are on a yearly contract, it makes it impossible to speak freely about our jobs. The president has offered ‘talks’ but I do not feel comfortable speaking or going to them because of possible retaliation for opinions expressed.”
President’s Response to the Third-Party Designation
At the March BOT meeting, Morton said while the college was still digesting the information from the survey, “We did use a software company called Alchemer to keep the information anonymous. Our commitment was to keep it anonymous. And to help calculate results, just like most schools do and the county does, and to be clear, we never said, the media likes to tell us that we were using a third party to complete this survey.”
But when WHQR reached out to the college on two separate occasions to ask about the third-party status of the survey, no responses were provided.
It’s unclear how Morton’s statement that there was no promise of a third-party survey squares with Brandon’s emails, stating the opposite.
According to the FA minutes dated March 21st, six days after the survey had closed, “Dr. Brandon corrected his impression that the survey was for both full-time and part-time employees. The survey was for full-time faculty and staff.”
But there was no correction included about mislabeling the third-party designation.
In reference to Morton’s BOT meeting comments about the NHCS district and the county using something similar to Alchemer, Michelle Lee wrote in the March BOT draft minutes, “This is the same process that New Hanover and New Hanover County Schools have used with similar software.”
While New Hanover County Schools did use SurveyMonkey for their December 2021 climate survey – and New Hanover County does use Microsoft Forms to gather employee feedback, which is then analyzed using Excel along with a software called Compellon (recently changed to Clear Sense) – both those entities do not have the history of an alleged hostile working environment reported through various media agencies as well as several calls from the Faculty Association and the former North Carolina Community College President Peter Hans over a period of several years for this independent survey.
Furthermore, the faculty minutes from March 21 state, “Questions were raised about the confidentiality and impartiality of the report since it did not appear to have originated from a third party. For example, the Belk Center was not utilized, despite those resources. Other concerns were about the timing and communication of the survey.”