[Editor’s note: This story first appeared online at WECT and is being shared with permission. On Monday evening, the original will be updated with video interviews and more information. You can find the original here.]
WILMINGTON (WECT) — Two former executives at Cape Fear Community College are speaking publicly about why they recently left their jobs with the college.
Sharon Smith served as Executive Director of Human Resources before resigning in November. Kumar Lakhavani served as Information Technology Director before resigning in December. Both shared similar stories with WECT 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.
“It was at the point where I felt like I could no longer influence the right thing to do. And as an HR professional, you want to try to do the right thing, not just whatever is politically expedient,” Smith explained. “I got to the point there where I felt like they just wanted someone who would do whatever they needed to have done. And I did feel like it was going to affect my reputation as an HR professional to continue to work there, and be dragged into that juvenile type of conversation, those types of situations where they would just end up wanting me to be the axe if they wanted to get rid of someone.”
“I just didn’t agree with a lot of what was going on and I took a lower level, much less paying job in Winston-Salem,” Lakhavani said of his own departure. “I would’ve rather stayed at Cape Fear but the environment was just too toxic.”
There have been reports of concerns about CFCC President Jim Morton since he was hired in the spring of 2018. Employees of the college and members of the community at large called and emailed WECT at that time to voice concerns over Morton’s lack of credentials (he has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from UNC Wilmington, while the vast majority of North Carolina community college presidents hold a doctorate), and the Board of Trustees’ decision not to conduct a more thorough presidential search.
More recently, the complaints to the WECT newsroom have focused on high turnover, unpopular changes made at the school’s Child Development Center, and what staffers describe as Morton’s unusually close relationship with his secretary. Callers noted he raised her salary to $103,000, which is reportedly well over the average for that position in the community college system and tens of thousands of dollars more than some of the deans and academic program directors at the college are making.
Notably, Michelle Lee got an $11,000 raise the same day the Board of Trustees announced former CFCC President Amanda Lee’s (no relation to Michelle) resignation, and announced that Jim Morton would be taking over as interim president. Michelle Lee’s raise pushed her salary to six figures.
College employees told WECT that Morton and Michelle Lee have lunch together on a regular basis, and have been seen driving one another’s personal cars.
Responding to these concerns, Morton released a four-page written statement which reads in part, “There is no inappropriate relationship between President Morton and any College employee. Any assertion to the contrary is false.” He also insisted that Michelle Lee’s salary was appropriate, and provided examples of administrative staff salaries at a neighboring four-year university for comparison.
Morton added that he “regularly has working lunches with College employees, both men and women,” and they “carpool together at times.” Responding to allegations that he and Michelle Lee have been seen driving each other’s personal vehicles, Morton provided the following explanation:
“At that time, when President Morton’s car was receiving an oil change, he went to lunch with his Senior Executive Assistant in her car, and President Morton was dropped off at the car dealership to retrieve his car.”
Top executives publicly voice concerns
Until now, employees voicing concerns were not willing to speak publicly, afraid it could jeopardize their jobs. Smith, who joined CFCC in 2017 and worked in human relations for almost 20 years, said she emailed two of the newer trustees on the CFCC board upon her departure, hoping to share her concerns about the workplace environment at the college. She said they never responded. That’s when she decided to contact WECT.
“You know, if it were a private company, you’d be disappointed and you’d move on. Here, I just felt like it’s important to let the public know, and to help the people that are left behind and still dealing with that, because there are several people who are still working there who are trying to make it a good place,” Smith said.
Lakhavani said Morton repeatedly cut the IT department’s budget and failed to fill four open IT positions, adding to the workload for the remaining people in his department. When Lakhavani had finally had enough and gave his two-week notice of resignation, he said Morton humiliated him in front of his entire department, coming into his office at 9:15 in the morning, asking him to pack up his things and leave immediately.
“It felt like someone kicked me in the stomach,” Lakhavani recalled. “I gave my heart and soul to that college for two and a half years. We worked Saturdays and Sundays. My staff is taking calls at 6 a.m. every morning. I have a helpdesk open on Saturdays now because of the pressure there. Now I have people working through the holidays. I [had] a staff member working on the 25th of December because [Morton] asked us to.”
Morton disputed Lakhavani’s story that he was asked to leave the college before his originally scheduled resignation date.
“On December 18, 2019, he was told he could go ahead and leave before the start of his holiday break, and he did so,” Morton wrote.
Lakhavani is adamant he was not given a choice, and that Morton told him to leave that day despite his previously approved request to HR to stay through the holidays so he could finish pending assignments.
Hiring and management practices questioned
Lakhavani says he was also concerned to see Morton fill four Vice President spots without advertising the positions to find the most qualified candidates. Instead, he said those top jobs have gone to Morton’s friends and loyalists.
“It’s very much mismanaged and one of the reasons is Jim Morton has not managed an environment like this. He came from the airport and had a much smaller team there. This is a much larger team, and this is an educational environment,” Lakhavani said.
Morton contends that because he reorganized departments, filling those posts with people already working for the college, he was not required by the college handbook to conduct a search.
“There is no preference in hiring based on friendship/family/politics, but, instead, we diligently follow our procedures and go out of our way to avoid any appearance of impropriety in hiring,” Morton added.
Lakhavani and Smith both expressed concerns that Morton had accessed Smith’s hard drive from Human Resources, since complaints made to HR are supposed to be confidential and kept within the department. As IT director, Lakhavani said he was directed to access Smith’s hard drive at Morton’s behest, and felt it was an unethical attempt to keep tabs on other employees.
“My hand was forced to go into her office after hours [to access the hard drive]…. Because Jim Morton and his assistant Michelle Lee are worried about something. They’re paranoid. So they want to know about everybody what everybody’s doing,” Lakhavani explained.
Morton said that for years, the college has routinely copied the hard drives of departing employees as needed to preserve important data, and provide immediate access to that data to support the “continuity of service to College students and staff.” He did not directly respond to concerns that by copying Smith’s hard drive, he was accessing sensitive and confidential information and employee complaints that Smith contends should never have left HR.
Some employees have used the term “police state” to describe the current environment at CFCC. One employee, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, said Morton asked them to review employees’ handwriting samples in an attempt to identify the person who had sent a letter to the Board of Trustees complaining about him. Morton flatly denies that allegation.
Smith said that Morton was prone to listen to rumors and gossip around the college, using this questionable information to make decisions that affected people’s careers. Before she left, Smith became so appalled by behavior she witnessed, that she made audio recordings of some conversations to document the level of dysfunction.
Caught on tape
On the tapes that Smith played for a WECT reporter, both Morton and his Senior Executive Assistant, Michelle Lee, can be heard talking disparagingly about another executive then at the college. They called her “crazy,” “sick,” and indicated that she was less than truthful about important information. But Smith says rather than document their concerns and work to correct the behavior, or terminate this employee, they let her behavior go largely unchecked.
Smith said Morton failed to take even basic steps, like doing an annual review of the employee in question. Smith put together a formal report detailing complaints to HR about this executive by six other college employees, consisting mostly of concerns about workplace bullying and threatening behavior.
Smith said Morton finally had a conversation with the executive in question to coach her about the concerning behavior, and put a note in her personnel file documenting the verbal warning, but that was it. The same employee then applied for an executive position at another North Carolina community college. Rather than share his concerns with the system office when they called to ask about the woman’s track record, Smith says Morton saw it as a way to eliminate a problem.
“The key is, let it be their problem. Get her out of here,” Morton is heard saying on the recording, made just after the employee got the job she was seeking.
“We have dealt with her long enough,” Lee said in response.
Morton declined to discuss the details of that executive’s departure, simply telling WECT he wished her well in her new role. He said he could not elaborate further “due to confidentiality of personnel information, which is protected by law.”
In addition to interviews with Smith and Lakhavani, WECT has spoken to more than half a dozen other high-level current employees and former executives who have recently left the college but asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. All of them who worked during the time Morton was president shared stories of hostile, retaliatory working conditions, and expressed concerns about the lack of what they believed to be competent leadership.
One was so disturbed by the way Morton had discussed his own faculty members, they wrote down what Morton said to them.
“Faculty are like line workers in a factory. When one drops dead, you just easily replace them with another,” the executive told us of Morton’s own words. They added that Morton told them faculty should “get happy here or I will make them happy somewhere else.”
Morton denied making either of those statements, and said he had a “positive working relationship with faculty and staff.”
As a result of the current environment, we’re told many experienced employees have left the college before they would have otherwise. CFCC Board of Trustees Member Jonathan Barfield told WECT he’s received one or two letters expressing similar concerns about Morton, and he asked Board Chairwoman Ann David to look into the concerns shortly before the holidays.
As of this writing, WECT has not learned the outcome of that inquiry.