Cape Fear Community College enjoys a high profile in downtown Wilmington these days, thanks to a generous bond referendum that county voters approved in 2008. On North Third Street, the college’s performing arts center hosts touring Broadway shows. Nearby, five-story Union Station serves as a combination coffee shop, health sciences and administration building.
Union Station’s top floor, with a prime view of the Cape Fear River, is home to the trustee boardroom. It’s a large space, but on Jan. 30, 2020, when the board’s regular meeting began, it was filled to standing room only.
Two weeks earlier, WECT, a Wilmington television station, had aired a story about President Jim Morton, who’d been controversial ever since trustees chose him for the school’s top job without a search.
Most Cape Fear employees that WECT had interviewed wanted to remain anonymous, but two former administrators—the head of human resources and the information technology director—had resigned and gone public with their criticism. Both shared similar stories, WECT reported, “of what they describe as a hostile and retaliatory work environment, as well as poor management skills and a general lack of professionalism at the highest levels of the college.”
With the controversy exposed, concerned employees saw the board meeting as an opportunity for an overdue reckoning—a chance for trustees to confront problems that had persisted since they tapped Morton in 2018.
Instead, President Morton delivered a 50-minute recitation of the previous year’s accomplishments, so detailed it included fire drills and irrigation system repairs. “You can never have progress without change,” he said. “And I want to thank the faculty and staff here, because they’ve gotten on board.”
He didn’t mention the allegations against him.
After moving into closed session, trustees reopened the meeting and showered Morton with support. They cited growing enrollment and positive directions. One trustee brought up WECT’s story, but only to criticize the TV station and the reporter.
The board’s critics left disappointed. Yet many held out hope that the state’s community college system leaders would step in. “That was the feeling we had,” one instructor told The Assembly. “The state won’t stand for this.”
Today, two years later, Morton is still in charge. The Assembly spoke with 15 current and former employees, many of whom wouldn’t speak on the record for fear of retaliation. They describe a school with a top-down leadership culture that has lost talented employees, either because they jumped ship or fell out of favor.
Yet Morton’s support among trustees, if not unanimous, remains strong. And Cape Fear offers a real-time study of the curious power dynamics in North Carolina’s community college system.
Four years ago, these dynamics enabled trustees to bypass the standard presidential selection process, eliminate job requirements, and hire their choice for the top position of one of North Carolina’s largest community colleges. Ever since, those same dynamics have allowed trustees to ignore a range of critics who say they made a mistake.
Jim Morton declined to talk, so I searched for interviews he’s given in nearly four years as president. I only found one—a four-minute Q&A with a Cape Fear student for the college’s YouTube channel. In the video, posted in December, the young woman glances at her notes. “What is something about you that would surprise most people?” she asks.
Morton, trim, bald, wearing a sports coat, sounds more relaxed than he did at that January 2020 trustees meeting. “So, I started off working at a bank,” he said. “And what I did at the bank was repossess cars. I originally came out of school as a repo man.” He continues, “What I would say for other students listening, don’t let your first job define what you do with your career. Here I am, a college president.”
Morton, 56, leads the fifth-largest of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges, a $97 million operation with nearly 1,100 employees. Cape Fear plays a leading economic development role in Wilmington, helping drive the area’s robust growth as it provides affordable college classes, trains workers and helps staff essential fields such as nursing and truck driving. In 2020-21, the school served nearly 20,000 students.
His path to that presidency was unconventional.
The college wouldn’t share Morton’s resume, but a short bio on Cape Fear’s website shows no experience in higher education prior to Cape Fear. From 2000 to 2015, he’d been finance director at Wilmington’s airport, which employs less than 50 people.
But in 2015, shortly before he left the airport, Morton was reassigned to marketing director, according to Julie Wilsey, who was then the airport’s new director. Wilsey, who left the airport last year, said she wanted someone with a CPA in the finance director’s position. Morton, with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from UNC-Wilmington, didn’t have one.
Cape Fear, however, had an opening for a vice president of business and financial services.
It had been a tough year for the college. In January, trustees had ousted President Ted Spring after he’d been caught charging unauthorized expenses on the college’s dime. (Spring would have the last word, however. He sued trustees for breach of contract and won a settlement of more than $450,000.)
By June, trustees had replaced Spring with a known quantity—Amanda Lee, a vice president at the college who’d started as a communications instructor in 2003 and climbed the administrative ladder.
Morton became one of her early hires. Cape Fear employees have long speculated that Lee was pushed to make the hire by one or more trustees.
One former community college administrator, who asked to remain anonymous, said that several trustees shared with him their plans to move Morton into the vice presidency. The job description for vice president was changed in July 2015, stripped of requirements that Morton lacked, including community college experience and either a CPA or a master’s degree in a business-related area.
A year after he arrived, Morton was promoted to a newly created position, executive vice president. A year after that, in fall 2017, Amanda Lee resigned without explanation.
Suzanne Baker, a sociology instructor and former Faculty Association vice president who left the college last year, was driving to work when she heard the announcement on the radio. “I remember my jaw hitting my chest,” she said.
Lee’s mysterious departure came as a surprise to other state community college leaders, too, says Michael Helmick, retired president of Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, who recalled conversations among his colleagues. “It was discussed among the presidents that it looked like board overreach,” he said. “A lot of us knew Amanda, and she was great.”
Amanda Lee declined comment for this story. She’s now president of Bladen Community College, and “she’s done an excellent job,” says Kennon Briggs. Briggs, a retired state community college system executive vice president, was a consultant in the Bladen presidential search.
With Lee out, trustees made Morton interim president. In March 2018, they rewrote the presidential job description, removing previous requirements—a doctoral degree, plus 10 years of experience that included oversight of academic and supportive services and at least four years of administrative and supervisory-level experience in a community college or similar academic setting.
Then, without a search, in closed session, they voted to make Jim Morton president. Blowback ensued. Wilmington’s Star-News criticized trustees for “a dereliction of duty” and urged the State Board of Community Colleges, which gives final approval to candidates, to block the appointment.
John Melia, a former trustee who cast one of three dissenting votes, told The Assembly, “There was a faction on the board that wanted him and it was no more difficult than that. They wanted him and that was it.” He said Amanda Lee was undermined, by both trustees and certain people who worked for her. He believes, however, that Morton did a good job as vice president and executive vice president, and that the school is on solid ground.
When a WECT reporter questioned trustees F. Maston White and Pat Kusek about the process, they defended it. They said Morton had done more in six months than his predecessors had done in five years, according to WECT’s story. Asked if Morton’s selection exemplified the good old boy system, Kusek didn’t deny it. It’s “a critical thing to be connected in the community,” she said. “It’s a relationship business.”
One of Morton’s connections had been membership in a private downtown men’s club called the Cape Fear Club, according to Julie Wilsey, Wilmington’s former airport director. The club, organized in 1866 largely by Confederate officers, excludes women. Membership is by invitation only. One of the few online mentions of the club is a 10-year-old Yelp review that describes the place as having “lots of old rich white men with pictures of old rich white men gazing down from the walls along with some superb oil paintings.”
When Morton was airport finance director, he took consultants to lunch there, Wilsey recalled.
Former Cape Fear trustees have lunched there, as have Airport Authority members. Wilsey said she became familiar with the club because she was sometimes required to brief Airport Authority members at lunch meetings. The group would gather in a room used for meetings that included women, she said.
“Decisions are made in that club each and every week, then sanitized and massaged to go through those public boards to make them look like a majority vote,” Wilsey said. She believes Morton’s connections at the club helped him get the college vice presidency after he was reassigned at the airport. Morton did not respond to questions from The Assembly about the club.
When trustees tapped Morton for president, they ignored the state’s standard presidential selection procedures, which included seeking community input, appointing a search committee and sending the names of two or three finalists to the state.
But they didn’t actually break rules because this hiring process—the most important task trustees perform—had never been made part of North Carolina’s Community College Code. It was based on custom and had worked only because most college trustees had been willing to follow it.
The state board could have blocked Morton’s appointment, but did not. Instead, after the board approved Morton unanimously, Scott Shook, then state board chairman, sent a letter to Cape Fear trustees voicing concerns about public perceptions. The state board “urges the CFCC Board of Trustees and senior administrators to identify ways to increase communication and transparency,” he said. Shook didn’t respond to The Assembly’s emails with questions about the board’s decision.
After the state board voted, local trustees set Morton’s salary at $255,000. That was $28,000 more than Amanda Lee, who had a doctorate and more community college experience, had been making when she left.
Morton was the sixth highest paid of the state’s 58 community college system presidents in 2020, according to state data. Since then, trustees have given him a 10 percent merit raise and a five-year contract. He now makes $286,100.
Once Morton became president, Larry Tingen, then Faculty Association president, wrote a letter at a vice president’s request stating the Faculty Association’s support for him.
Tingen, a math instructor, was hopeful that Morton could succeed, despite his limited experience. Tingen figured Morton’s connections to Wilmington’s power brokers was an asset, and from what he’d observed, Morton was a competent finance vice president who had known “where every penny was.”
When some faculty objected to the Faculty Association’s support of Morton, “I told them we’ve been through three presidents in five years and we need someone to hold the steering wheel,” Tingen said.
A couple months later, however, Tingen’s regular report to trustees included concerns about Morton. Some instructors were describing “a culture of fear and intimidation at CFCC,” he wrote. “They had been told to keep their heads down and not to get noticed or they would find themselves with a bad schedule or without a job.” Most Cape Fear employees work on one-year contracts.
Patrick Hogan, Cape Fear’s now-retired executive director of institutional effectiveness and planning, offered a similar observation in a written statement to The Assembly: “When Jim Morton assumed the role as president, he made it clear that faculty and staff are easily replaced and must follow his lead or leave.” Hogan recalled that at a meeting with managers, Morton said it was his boat, and that employees needed to go in his direction or get out.
In May 2018, three months into Morton’s presidency, the college announced it was cutting jobs following six years of declining enrollment. The announcement didn’t say which jobs or the number of positions to be cut, but departmental secretaries, department chairs and deans were affected, according to former employees.
“At this point, faculty are afraid to ask any questions,” said Baker, the former sociology instructor, “because we might be getting a letter in the mail saying we don’t have a contract in the fall.” Unlike university professors, community college instructors can’t get tenure.
As months passed, Sharon Smith, the college’s HR director, said she became increasingly concerned with what she saw as a pattern of unprofessional behavior among top administrators.
When she resigned in 2019, she summarized her concerns in a letter she sent to two trustees.
“The employees at CFCC are fearful to raise concerns and give feedback because many people witness firsthand how those who are not in favor of the President and his secretary are sabotaged and ridiculed, often in clever ways that are not outwardly obvious,” she wrote, but that “perpetuate abuse, tarnish reputations, and sometimes result in disciplinary action.”
Kumar Lakhavani, Cape Fear’s IT director, was also growing uneasy with certain requests he was getting from top administrators. The first came after Morton learned of an anonymous email making the rounds at the college.
Lakhavani recalls being summoned to a conference room in the president’s suite. He recalls that Morton and his executive assistant, Michelle Lee, who is unrelated to Amanda Lee, were there and he was asked to find out who sent the email. The sender’s name was an alias, “Ray C. Devil,” a play on the name of Cape Fear’s sea devil stingray mascot.
“The perception of many employees,” the email said, is that while Amanda Lee was president, Morton “had been running the day to day of the school under the board’s direction…. At meetings, board members would flat out ignore her and address him directly.”
Morton and Michelle Lee “wanted to know if it came from a school computer,” Lakhavani recalled. He concluded, after several hours of work, that it did not.
“That was the start of this snooping. Find out what this person has on their computer,” Lakhavani said. “They would call me to the suite. They always did it together. They never put anything in writing.”
College rules say the college owns the data on its computers and employees should have no expectation of privacy.
But Lakhavani felt guilty. In 30 years working in information technology, he said, he’d never been asked to delve into employee data without an allegation of an inappropriate use, such as viewing porn or gambling. “You can’t tell your IT people to snoop,” he said. “That’s very unethical in my business.”
Lakhavani and Sharon Smith had both arrived in 2017. Both resigned in late 2019.
After Smith left, she told WECT that she worried that continuing to stay at Cape Fear would hurt her reputation as an HR professional. “I got to the point where I felt like they just wanted someone who would do whatever they needed to have done,” she said. “They would just end up wanting me to be the axe if they wanted to get rid of someone.”
Trustees have said that the former staffers didn’t go through proper channels to report their concerns. “There’s a process for complaints that I personally think should be followed,” Trustee Jimmy Hopkins told The Assembly. “Either follow the guidelines or don’t complain.”
But Tingen says when he heard the WECT story, he concluded his support for Morton had been misguided. “I was wrong. I screwed up,” he says now. Tingen recently left Cape Fear for another job.
In 1963, when North Carolina legislators created the community college system, they put significant power in the hands of trustees and presidents who ran the colleges. This local control made sense, leaders said, because these schools require flexibility to offer classes and programs that meet local needs.
This has sometimes frustrated system presidents. “I’m looked on more like a departmental secretary than the president of a 58-campus system,” one president, Vic Hackley, said in 1997 when he announced his resignation.
Periodically, reports of malfeasance, abuse, or blunders at campuses have triggered calls for reform. In 1994, for instance, a consultant’s report recommended changes that would have given the state board the power to choose college presidents and some local trustees, as the UNC System Board of Governors does.
But local presidents and trustees vehemently objected, and the recommendations went nowhere. “The worst thing that could happen to the community college system is for us to become a centralized system like the university system,” the head of the state trustees association said then. He even objected to mandatory trustee training.
Today, the system’s overall structure remains the same. The state board appoints no local trustees. That power lies with the governor’s office, local boards of education and local county commissions. Trustees select their presidents, and only trustees can fire them. The state board gives final approval to presidential hires, but that approval has sometimes been a rubber stamp. The board doesn’t always flex the power it has.
Over the years, however, state leaders have added laws and rules to improve accountability. Trustee training became mandatory, as did evaluations for campus presidents. The state board in late 2018 codified its presidential search guidelines “to provide clarity and consistency,” according to a memo from then-President of the Community College System Peter Hans. This came partly in response to the Cape Fear trustees’ decision to ignore the guidelines and choose Morton without a search.
In 2018, legislators also gave the state board the power, in dire circumstances, to replace local trustees with an interim board. This law followed a crisis at Martin Community College—unfilled staff positions, millions in the budget unspent—that had festered after anonymous students had circulated allegations. The state board ultimately had to threaten to withhold the longtime president’s salary to force her out.
Retired Western Piedmont President Michael Helmick, who has worked in three state community college systems, says major problems often stem from two issues—presidents who hide information from trustees and trustees who undermine presidents by meddling in administration. Most North Carolina colleges run well, Helmick says, but there are always a few where “you’ve got people who make up their own rules and do what they want.”
After WECT aired its story about Cape Fear’s toxic culture, Hans gave a brief statement to the James G. Martin Center for Higher Education Renewal, a nonprofit advocacy group. He said he was aware of concerns by some former Cape Fear employees, adding that state law mandated that local trustees oversee the operations of the college.
“With local authority comes responsibility and accountability,” he wrote. The state board was monitoring the situation and was in “active communication” with trustees. Also, he had “advised the college to undertake a climate survey of faculty and staff confidentially administered by an independent third-party.”
A few months later, Cape Fear leaders said they weren’t doing the survey. Hans, who declined to be interviewed for this story, soon resigned to become president of the UNC system.
In September, 2021, Faculty Association President Eric Brandon came to the trustees with a request that had a familiar ring. Brandon, a philosophy instructor, said the association had asked Morton for an employee survey, conducted by an independent third party, to gauge the campus climate. The group had voted, and it was unanimous.
Wasn’t this recommended before? a trustee asked.
Yes, Brandon said, by Peter Hans.
Didn’t the Faculty Association do its own 2020 survey? a trustee asked.
Yes, but Brandon said he didn’t release the results of the in-house survey because he believed the sample size was too small.
Trustee Jonathan Barfield, a New Hanover County commissioner who voted in 2018 against making Morton president, said he supported the Faculty Association’s request. The county regularly surveys its employees, he pointed out. “Sometimes you see things you don’t want to see, but it helps make your organization better,” he said.
About six minutes into the discussion, Chairman Bill Cherry tried to leave the topic. “On to the foundation report,” he said.
Barfield interrupted. “Before we move on, going back to this previous conversation, where does it go from here?”
Cherry replied that as he understood it, the board had no involvement. “It’s strictly up to Jim,” he said.
Barfield persisted. “But Jim works for the board, right?”
Morton finally spoke up, outlining his reluctance to do a survey. He said that past employee surveys had elicited “many complaints about parking, things like that. It never had any value to it.” The timing was also bad, he said. People were predisposed to be unhappy “because of all the things that are happening right now with COVID.”
Cost, he said, was also a big problem. He cited figures of $200,000 or $300,000. “Right now, I’m in the hole about a million dollars in my budget,” he said.
(N.C. State’s Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research conducts surveys for community colleges for a standard charge of $4,500 to $5,000, which is now being waived for North Carolina schools, thanks to a three-year grant, according to Belk Center Director A.J. Jaeger.)
Unmentioned by Morton: the low ratings he and trustees had received on that unreleased Faculty Association survey. WHQR, Wilmington’s public radio station, had published the results after obtaining the faculty-produced survey as a public record.
More than 81 percent of survey respondents said faculty morale had declined over the past two years. Only 22 percent said they had confidence in Jim Morton’s leadership. Less than 14 percent had confidence in the board’s leadership.
Of the school’s 300 full-time faculty, 35 percent had completed the survey. Though Brandon cited concerns about the response rate, Suzanne Baker, the former Faculty Association vice president, said Brandon had also worried that respondents could be identified by their comments.
Brandon wouldn’t talk to The Assembly for this article, citing Faculty Association bylaws. The bylaws forbid the association’s president from making faculty-related public comments without a unanimous vote of the group’s executive committee—and without approval of Cape Fear’s marketing department.
Baker had disagreed with Brandon’s decision, but she said she understood he wanted to protect colleagues worried about retaliation. Those worries were one reason the response rate wasn’t higher, she said. Institutions do independent third-party surveys to avoid such concerns.
At September’s trustee meeting, the question of whether to do an employee survey ended with no decision. But Deloris Rhodes, a new board member, echoed Barfield’s support. “I think it’s something that needs to be done so we can move forward,” she said, “because it will not die until we get the facts, address the information, and move forward.”
Cape Fear’s problems are no secret around Wilmington. “I have had first-hand encounters with numerous people who tell me morale is low,” says state Rep. Deb Butler, whose district is in New Hanover County.
Fifteen current and former instructors, staff and administrators described to The Assembly problems that have contributed to that low morale, but many wouldn’t speak on the record for fear of retaliation. In September, WHQR revealed that the college had recently removed portions of employee grievance procedures from its employee handbook, including the process for filing a grievance against the president. Even former employees who work in Wilmington are reluctant to be identified. “Wilmington is a small town,” one said.
Under Morton’s leadership, employees say, the school has developed a top-down culture with an abusive, unprofessional management style. One former employee, for instance, recalled a lack of action after she complained about a top administrator spreading a false rumor that she was having an affair with Morton.
In some cases, when employees resigned or were let go, supervisors or campus police were sent to escort them out of the buildings. Kumar Lakhavani, the former IT director, says after he resigned, Morton came to his office and “insisted that I clear my office and leave,” even though he was scheduled to work several more days.
While some employees have been pushed out, others say the school’s toxic atmosphere prompted them to leave. In August, Mike Taylor, the welding program director, resigned after 27 years and added 40 miles to his daily commute to take a similar job at Bladen Community College. He says he had few dealings with Morton, but believes the president “allowed supervisors to run roughshod over employees.”
Employees also complain that leaders lack a coherent plan. Last month, an anonymous email went out to Cape Fear’s three newest board members. “The lack of experience and lack of a concrete strategy has been eroding the inner workings of the college,” the author wrote. “Mismanagement and an insular 5th floor that is guided by personal agendas and petty dramas is tearing this school down quietly from the inside out.”
The school is hemorrhaging talent, employees say. “Everybody is trying to get out,” said a staff member who left recently.
When The Assembly requested Cape Fear’s annual employee turnover rates from 2011 to the present, Sonya Johnson, vice president for marketing and community relations, said the college had no records.
“We’re kind of all like the beaten dogs right now,” a current staff member said. “At this point, everybody’s just lost hope. It’s just like, keep your head down. There’s no adult at the state level that’s willing to step in. It just blows my mind. It boggles the mind why the trustees keep coming to bat for him.”
In Raleigh, community college system leaders are voicing no concerns. Thomas Stith III, who replaced Hans as president a year ago, declined an interview request. Instead, his communications director sent a response, pointing out that Morton wasn’t hired on Stith’s watch. “I cannot speak to prior processes but respect and observe the governance and processes currently in place,” Stith said in a statement to The Assembly. He didn’t address whether he supported Morton.
Morton’s critics have speculated that state leaders are willing to overlook problems because Morton has turned around the college’s sagging enrollment. In the last decade, community college enrollment has dropped across the nation. Since 2011, North Carolina’s enrollment, measured in full-time student equivalencies, has dropped by 15 percent. Cape Fear saw a similar decline, but in 2018-19, its downward trend began to reverse. Since 2017-18, enrollment has climbed nearly 6 percent, though it remains down 10.5 percent for the decade. (Preliminary numbers for fall 2021 suggest more schools are seeing increases.)
But historically, the state system rarely intervenes in local issues. It seems likely that the state board, after wagging its finger at Cape Fear trustees for the way they hired Morton, concluded there was little to do except move on. The tools at the state board’s disposal—withholding funding or replacing trustees—are nuclear-level options meant to address crises such as severe financial mismanagement.
Burr Sullivan, chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, told The Assembly in an email that there was little he could say. “Local control of our Great 58 colleges is an important aspect of our governance model that serves the State of NC quite well,” he wrote.
State leaders also may be preoccupied with their own problems. The system has seen a brain drain. Several administrators, including Jennifer Haygood, former executive vice president, left to follow Peter Hans to UNC system jobs. Since Stith became president, departures have continued. The latest is Elizabeth Grovenstein, the system’s chief financial officer.
Multiple sources with knowledge of board proceedings have confirmed to The Assembly that Stith is under increasing fire for his leadership, including the high turnover at the System Office. His recent one-year review stretched for three-and-a-half hours of closed session, according to a report from EdNC.
The state presidency has been a revolving door. Stith is the sixth person in charge, counting interim leaders, since Scott Ralls left in 2015. Ralls now leads Wake Tech, North Carolina’s largest community college.
At Cape Fear, Trustee Chairman Bill Cherry declined an interview for this story but sent a statement. The college will do a survey of its employees, he said. He didn’t say how or when.
Cherry also emphasized the board’s support for Morton: “Although change is never easy, change is necessary for an institution to grow, stay relevant, and support the needs of the citizens and businesses of New Hanover and Pender Counties. President Morton is an incredible leader and challenges himself and the College to become better every day.”
Morton, too, sent a statement in lieu of an interview.
“The College has strong enrollment and has faired [sic] much better than most other community colleges during the global pandemic,” he said. He credited outstanding faculty and staff for Cape Fear’s success. He noted that the college recently gave full-time employees a 2 percent raise in addition to the state’s recent 2.5 percent pay increase.
And let it not be said that Morton never requests feedback. Though he has resisted that employee survey, he asked his student interviewer in the YouTube video for suggestions to improve Cape Fear.
The student said she couldn’t think of a thing. “Cape Fear really has made it so easy for me,” she said. “All my teachers have been great.”
“I love to ask students that,” Morton replied, “because that’s the only way you improve, is to get the feedback, and if you know of an issue, then we can address it, look at it and try to get better.”
Pam Kelley, a Charlotte journalist, is the author of Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South.