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Executive compensation issue arises for NC community college

In the last few weeks, I’ve written about executive compensation and its contribution to the cost of attendance. A recent effort by a North Carolina television station to unearth information about a community college president’s salary illustrates the issue.

The Trustees of the Cape Fear Community College in Cape Fear, NC recently voted to give CFCC president Jim Morton a $30,000 raise. This is the second time in less than two years that the CFCC trustees voted to raise Morton’s salary by 10% or more. With the inclusion of the raise, Morton will now be making $322,584.

In North Carolina, salaries of certain public officials (including community college presidents) are limited by statute. If a community college wants to exceed the state salary cap, the county must provide the excess. In Morton’s case, the state salary cap is $166,000. That means the good taxpayers of Harnett County, home of CFCC, must pony up nearly $157,000 to cover the Trustees’ largesse.

Less about the executive, more about the compensation

CFCC has an enrollment of about 14,000 students and a budget of about $110M annually. That’s very similar – in some respects – to WCC. (WCC is smaller in terms of enrollment.) Morton isn’t a typical community college president. His education and work experience don’t exactly scream “Community College President!” .

First, his educational qualifications include a bachelor’s degree in marketing. (That’s it.) In comparison, ninety-three percent of North Carolina’s 58 community college presidents have doctorate degrees.

He doesn’t have any practical experience in higher education, but he did serve as the Finance Director for the Wilmington International Airport, which was the 125th busiest airport in the US in 2020. For perspective, Detroit Metropolitan Airport was ranked 18th by passenger volume. The Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids checked in at 74. Wilmington International Airport is slightly larger than the airport in Fargo, ND, and managed about 1,475 passengers per day in 2020.

The other employees of CFCC haven’t gotten 10%+ raises two years in a row. And while the Trustees are simply enthralled with Jim Morton, many other people at CFCC are not.

That matters little to the Trustees of CFCC, who are more than happy to fluff up Morton’s salary by double-digits. It also matters little to the Trustees that the taxpayers of Harnett County need to come up with the $157,000 that they’ve bestowed upon the President. They vigorously defend their decision to issue the jumbo-sized raise because (they claim), Morton has raised enrollment since he’s arrived.

Except that he hasn’t.

According to the IPEDS data CFCC reported from 2018-2020, the school’s unduplicated headcount dropped by nearly 8%. Its total instructional hours and FTE students dropped by 9.4%. (These numbers do not reflect additional enrollment losses brought on by the pandemic.)

When Trustees hide executive compensation information

What’s worse, the Trustees attempted to hide the executive compensation information from the public when the television station reporter requested it. They claimed the salary information was “confidential.” (It was not and is not.) Despite the Trustees’ best efforts, the television station secured the information through the State of North Carolina.

It’s disturbing that the Trustees there would rather defend their overcompensated, underqualified executive than acknowledge the shitty optics of their hire. Lowering the bar on educational and experiential qualifications merely puts pressure on other institutions to do the same for objectively unqualified leadership candidates. It also raises the cost of attendance for CFCC students, and potentially those at other campuses where Trustees fill executive positions with lacking candidates.

Overpaying underqualified chief executives also leads to a “recalibration” of salary schedules for lower-level executives at each institution. It becomes another “race to the bottom” at a time when community colleges need every dime they can get. Further, it sets unrealistic expectations for the next person whom the Trustees hire to fill the role. It also disrespects the voters of Harnett County, who elected the Trustees to look out for their interests.

It’s easy to see the problem with exorbitant executive compensation in someone else’s county. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to see the parallels in this story to our own circumstances.

Photo Credit: Jerry Woody, via Flickr