Opinion: Daily Journal

In North Carolina, community college controversies open Pandora’s box

Recent cases from North Carolina suggest that community college governance may be in need of an overhaul. Consider Martin Community College.

In 2014 an anonymous letter allegedly written by a group of concerned students, faculty, and staff was sent to the state’s community college system, the school’s board of trustees, and lawmakers. It claimed, among other things, that cronyism, dubious financial dealings, and disastrous management decisions had for years been rampant, and had for years been ignored by school officials.

Last November, the State Board of Community Colleges released a report that substantiated several of the allegations in the 2014 complaint. The situation was so dire the state board threatened to withhold MCC’s funding, and it effectively pushed out the president, Dr. Ann Britt, by refusing to pay her salary; she is resigning in March.

The report showed that over several years more than $5 million in state funding had not been spent by MCC. But this was not a case of fiscal prudence; state allocations are based largely on colleges’ baseline operating needs — apparently, key staffing positions went unfilled and important equipment went un-purchased, leaving the school in disarray. And by fiscal 2015-16, the finances had reversed. The school was at risk of operating in the red.

Furthermore, state-mandated employee bonuses had not been paid out, and the board of trustees had become impotent because of bylaws that vested authority in a small campus executive committee.

Martin Community College responded by pledging to shore up its finances, reassert the full board’s power, and provide greater transparency. Somewhat shockingly, according to WITN news, the trustees sought to pay Dr. Britt $200,000 “for unused vacation and sabbatical leave”—a plan later vetoed by system leaders.

There are supposed to be several levels of oversight over North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. At the campus level, there are boards of trustees appointed by the governor, local county commissioners, and county boards of education. All 58 boards report to the State Board of Community Colleges, which in turn reports to the state legislature. Further oversight comes from the accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Most decision-making power is granted to trustees, due to the belief that their local knowledge will provide the best guidance. But too frequently they rely on campus leadership to steer them.

Richard Cowan, a long-serving MCC board member, told system officials at their recent meeting trustees are often not given meeting materials until the day before meetings, and those materials are often missing key information.

If Cowan, a trustee at a school with fewer than 800 students, is experiencing such frustration, it’s possible that trustees at the state’s 57 other community colleges, which in a given year enroll, combined, more than 700,000 students, have faced similar issues.

Fayetteville Technical Community College, for example, is being sued by six former employees who claim they were pressured to raise student retention rates by inflating grades. They further allege that the school’s president, Larry Keen, used the high grades in an attempt to secure performance funding from the state.

And a recent tip to the state auditor’s office uncovered a scandal at Wayne Community College. A professor provided improper benefits to a school employee, allowing him to receive course credits without attending or participating in any classes. Roughly $10,000 of state and federal funds were used fraudulently.

These examples beg the question: What might be happening at other community colleges that we don’t know about? Even if we assume boards of trustees are engaged and willing to tackle problems on their campuses, the fact remains that college officials control their flow of information, and may not always provide the transparency necessary for good governance. Moving up the hierarchy, the State Board of Community Colleges itself is beset with bureaucratic problems, and in recent years has served as a “rubber-stamping” body.

North Carolinians should not have to rely only on the occasional bombshell from a concerned campus group or whistleblower to call their community colleges to account. There clearly is room for improvement in terms of ensuring that such colleges are being properly stewarded and that trustees and the state board are fulfilling their duties. And here, the responsibility lies ultimately with the state legislature. Perhaps it should consider these governance issues before it finalizes the community college system’s biennial budget this summer.

Jesse Saffron is managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.