A-B Tech, Buncombe commissioner diverge on diversity efforts

TAX TWEAK: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved changing the intent of a sales tax dedicated for A-B Tech from capital projects to operations and maintenance.
TAX TWEAK: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved changing the intent of a sales tax dedicated for A-B Tech from capital projects to operations and maintenance. Photo by Clara Murray

Questions about diversity on the campus of A-B Tech loom large after a Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting last month. During that meeting, commissioners unanimously upheld a spending freeze on the school’s capital projects — specifically an arts, science and engineering building that would provide the school with 99,000 square feet of classroom space at a cost of $27 million (the county has already put $2.2 million toward the project). Commissioners imposed the funding moratorium over concerns that money for the school was being approved through the board’s consent agenda, which usually receives limited discussion during meetings. At the same time, some commissioners also noted worries about the school’s commitment to diversity.

Xpress spoke to A-B Tech’s president, the former diversity recruiter of four years and Commissioner Ellen Frost, who is vocal about the issue, to get a better understanding of the various perspectives in play concerning the state of minorities enrolling and receiving supporting services while attending the school.

Enrollment excellence

“We are extremely pleased that A-B Tech’s minority enrollment in our curriculum programs has increased significantly in the last 10 years, from 9.1 percent in the 2006-07 academic year, to 17.8 percent in the 2015-16 academic year,” A-B Tech President Dennis King tells Xpress. Further, he states, “Minority enrollment in Continuing Education also has increased, from 15.2 percent in 2006-07 to 17.2 percent in 2015-16.” King adds that the college’s Hispanic enrollment increased from 2.1 percent in 2006-07 to 6.9 percent in 2015-16, noting, “We also do have bilingual staff, and it is a preferred requirement for new hires.”

“Our improved numbers in recent years are slightly higher than the total percentage of minorities in our service area, according to U.S. census data,” says King.

A-B Tech serves a number of counties in Western North Carolina, but its facilities are based in Buncombe and Madison counties. According to U.S. census data, Buncombe County’s African-American population was 6.6 percent, and the Hispanic population was 6.6 percent in 2015; Madison County’s African-American population was 1.8 percent and the Hispanic population was 2.4 percent for the same year.

Job description disagreement

Phyllis Utley held the position of diversity recruiter at A-B Tech’s diversity recruiter for about four years. But in September 2016, she says, the position was abruptly eliminated. She claims she was called into an administrative office, informed the job was transitioning to focus on general high school enrollment and told she needed to decide if she was on board with the new job description that day. “It was really interesting organizational behavior,” Utley tells Xpress. “I felt uncomfortable and felt that if I didn’t sign it, I wouldn’t have a job. It was very stressful, but I accepted it. I sent an email to human resources stating how quickly it happened and how uncomfortable I felt.”

Frost, who has had conversations with Utley, says she’s troubled by this accusation. “We talk about hostile work environments, and that sure seems to be a classic example of a hostile work environment.”

By state law, A-B Tech is not allowed to specifically comment on the issue, but King did tell Xpress, “College leaders and supervisors are within their rights to discuss positions, organizational restructuring and other issues without involving their employees and then communicate any decisions that are made.”

Utley says she soon discovered the position didn’t have the same mission or the capacity to effectively carry out her previous work. “Diversity recruiter was not just recruiting. It was case management for students already at the college: to help with bumps in the road, navigate financial aid and give other forms of support,” she notes. “That’s not the same as me  going to a high school, having students see that I’m brown and think, ‘She looks just like me so I’ll enroll in a class.’ … It’s not the same.”

Meanwhile, King says the position evolved to meet the region’s current landscape, and its mission is not compartmentalized to one job title. “It was maintained as part of a reorganization within the Student Services division and refocused on high school dual enrollment, which is the fastest-growing area of college enrollment and an area where we specifically would like to increase minority enrollment. Every A-B Tech recruiter is charged with diversity recruiting, but it is especially important to have this focus in high schools,” says King.

And he says numbers culled from the State of Black Asheville report buttress that decision. “Many African-American teenagers leave Asheville after high school graduation. We have to recruit these students when they are in high schools to demonstrate the value of A-B Tech’s dual enrollment program, where they can earn free college credits,” says King.

In regard to continuing support of minority students on campus, King asserts the school is as dedicated as ever. “Diversity and inclusion are infused into everything we do, and the evidence of our success is seen in the growth in our minority enrollment, the numbers of minority scholarships and the success of our students. Our Minority Student Leadership Academy also continues to be successful,” he says.

However, Frost says while the school insists the diversity recruiter position has not been eliminated, the new position doesn’t fit the same need. Frost claims the change sends a negative signal. “It’s really terrible, and we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable people in our community. That position was not only recruiting minorities, but also helping them with the transition so they could thrive. I question what that says as far as how they feel about black people and minorities,” she says. “For white people, I don’t think they completely understand what it’s like to be the only one.”

Minority money matters

Feeling unfulfilled by her new role with the school, Utley says she hoped to pivot to a position that would focus on minority male success, a part-time position that could, in theory, be funded by a $17,234 grant from the N.C. Community College System. “The funding they got was not for a full-time position, but the college is very creative, and they could have combined the grant with other money to create a full-time position,” asserts Utley, who helped write the grant application.

“I said I was willing to step down from my [current] position. It would seem to me that it would be a no-brainer. I’ve already been in contact with all those students.” However, Utley claims the school, which received the grant in September, told her they would not be hiring for that position at the time.

King says the school looked at creating that position but ultimately decided the money could be better utilized. “We initially hoped to create a position but learned the funds had to be spent by June 30 and were not guaranteed to be renewed, meaning there were not sustainable funds for a new position. We are now looking at using the grant to expand resources and hours in the Academic Learning Center,” he says.

But Utley claims the school will receive the funding for three consecutive years. She concedes that expectation is contingent on the N.C. General Assembly funding the program, a prospect that is not a guarantee.

The grant, titled “Minority Male Success Initiative,” was allocated to 47 state schools. Xpress reached out to the N.C. Community College System to see if other schools had spent the money. A-B Tech has spent $216 of the grant and, while not alone, it’s in the minority, as eight schools have spent less than $1,000. However, on the other end of the spectrum, no school has completely exhausted those funds and, as noted, A-B Tech has until the end of June to do so. You can view that report here.

Mission accomplished

Lastly, Utley says she is disturbed by A-B Tech changing its vision, mission and values statement, a move that deletes a bullet point about “inclusiveness,” among many other edits that have streamlined the entire statement. “Why did [A-B Tech] take out ‘inclusiveness’? I was told the college feels we already understand we operate from that framework. That’s odd to me because [A-B Tech] kept ‘excellence’ as a value, and I would think we are already operating from that framework,” she says. “As a person of color, I need to see that. To see that is something the college wants to stand by, and to remove it is very painful.”

However, King says the move was part of the school’s Strategic Plan. “Diversity and inclusion was infused throughout the plan under the value of ‘creating a supportive learning environment’ for all students. This was done upon the recommendation of our late trustee, Dr. Don Locke, who told me more than once that diversity and inclusion needed to become part of all we do and not a stand-alone goal.” You can view the old statement here, and the new statement here.

A-B Tech Vission, Mission, Value
A-B Tech’s old vision, mission and value statement has a bullet point about “inclusiveness” that has been eliminated in the new vision, mission and value statement. However, bullet points about “learning” and “continuous improvement” have also been removed.

And King notes the school has myriad initiatives aimed at inclusion. “We also have a long-standing Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which is charged with developing programs and professional development for staff, faculty and students, as well as a Diversity and Inclusion Plan Task Force, which is developing a long-term strategy for attracting faculty, staff and students.”

Frost says the overall tone makes her feel it’s time for the school to pivot. “A-B Tech has done extraordinary things in the past. I think they need to reboot and really look at this,” she asserts. “Also, I want A-B Tech to make investments in people and not buildings. But it’s time for a big reboot because minorities cannot feel they are not welcome at an institution in Buncombe County.”

King counters: “I do not agree with this assessment. We need to continue our successful efforts and stay focused on our strategic goals of increasing diversity enrollment and engagement, but we strive every day to ensure people of all races and ethnicities feel welcome, and I have no reason to believe anyone doesn’t feel welcome.

“I challenge anyone to find faculty and staff who are more dedicated to student success than A-B Tech’s. We have answered many questions as fully as possible for Commissioner Frost, and I truly hope she will join us for a visit and meet our students, who are by far the best testimony to our success.”

Frost says these are the questions that need to be asked in order to evolve. “I remain optimistic. A-B Tech has done great work in the past. They have a key role in the community, and we need to refocus so everyone feels welcome there,” she says. “Nothing gets fixed if it’s swept under the rug, and we need to have hard conversations about this.”

And a conversation about these issues looks to be a major part of the upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting. King appeared before commissioners during their last meeting and will be back on the upcoming agenda to field more questions about diversity and other issues on campus as he works to secure funding for future capital projects.

The Board of Commissioners meets Tuesday, March 7, at 4:30 p.m. at 200 College St.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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10 thoughts on “A-B Tech, Buncombe commissioner diverge on diversity efforts

  1. John

    Anyone who has ever attended A-B Tech knows that they are 100% committed to being inclusive to ALL people. It’s insane that one disgruntled employee who got the ear of a county commissioner could tarnish A-B Tech’s reputation like this. Ms. Utley was simply moved to another position where there was a greater need for recruitment, and THAT’S the evidence for A-B Tech not valuing diversity?! Organizations move people into new positions all the time, based on organizational needs. And Ms. Frost is going to deny Buncombe residents/future A-B Tech students a new building because of the feelings of ONE disgruntled employee who didn’t want to be moved to a different position at the College?! Insane. #RemoveFrost

    • luther blissett

      There are a couple of separate issues here. One is that educational administrators are now typically judged on construction projects before they’re judged on who passes through. Building a building is considered a resume item. The other is what A-B Tech’s goals should be for the future.

      The way the piece is written does define the question very narrowly, and is framed primarily by Ms Utley and Commissioner Frost. I think we need to hear more, from students as well as staff and administrators.

  2. Samantha W.

    Whoa. As an Asheville resident, African American and AB Tech graduate I greatly resent the fact that Ellen Frost would deny AB Tech funding for a new building because… diversity enrollment has increased in recent years and is more diverse than the community the college serves??? Frost is clearly committed more to her friend (Phyllis Utley) than the county she’s supposed to be advocating for.

  3. Eva J

    I challenge anyone to find another NC community college that has more diversity initiatives than ABTech, let alone a full-time position dedicated solely to case management of minority students. Community college funding has been cut significantly and these schools are operating on a shoestring budget, so it makes total sense that Utley would be moved to a position dedicated to recruiting high school (minority!) students, since the college’s funding is based on the number of students enrolled. ABTech has cut a lot of positions over the past couple years due to lack of funding, so Utley should’ve been thankful that they moved her to a different position rather than just let her go like they have others.

    • Mike

      I don’t think you understand the scope of this decision. On countless occasions I have seen Ms. Utley single handedly keep students from dropping out of college by checking in on them and referring them to vital resources, connections and even just encouragement that they would not have had if someone were not actively paying attention. Minorities face significant hurdles that many people do not realize and completion rates are much lower than those of majority students. Her continued support to students once they are enrolled has been instrumental to the success of A-B Tech’s minority student population and this new position does not allow her to provide the same level of ongoing case management with unfortunate detrimental consequences to minority students. Yes it’s important to get them in the door, but that’s not enough to get them through. My one critique of Dr. King is that he has a tendency to make decisions without discussing them first with those who are directly impacted and then unintended fallout like this happens. A-B Tech’s Diversity Recruiter position was unique and vital and I agree that it’s loss was a slap in the face to diversity support at A-B Tech.

      • Tony

        Thank you for sharing your real-life experience of observing Ms. Utley in her work at AB Tech. I believe the best way to formulate an opinion is to be involved. As president king states, the best way to get to know the efforts of AB Tech is to get to know the staff and students. I too have observed Ms. Utley’s dedication to her students needs and efforts to overcome the barriers they face to be successful in life. Her efforts addressed the students challenges far beyond her capacity as the Minority Student Advisor at AB Tech.

        I believe the student body will suffer from this fall-out/transition. If we keep in mind why the school is here in the first place, we will realize that those new buildings will not meet the needs of our community unless they are filled with the (people of) color(s) who help make WNC so beautiful.

  4. Deplorable Infidel

    ABTech is to be commended for eliminating such a silly job as ‘diversity recruiter’ …sheesh…be GLAD! We have WAY too many of these government fluff kinda jobs everwhur…Even President Trump is not filling 600,000 needless gov. jobs!

    And ABTech needs to eliminate some of their fluff curriculum and get back to basic technical skills!

  5. Fay

    As several readers have pointed out, the position and priority was not diluted or eliminated in any manner, but instead re- focused to serve the high school population. Disgruntled employees and their advocates should not drive decision-making and certainly have no bearing on the classroom and building needs for a vital institution like A- B Tech. Dr. King and College leaders are wise to focus on the unmet needs and the opportunity to drive positive change and improve lives and community resources for all students. Their mission critical is to continue to emphasize the services and support network available to under-represented members of our community in all forms : urban and rural students, students from all ethnicities and races, community members from all age groups and backgrounds, and focus on the area’s diverse educational and business partners. Keep up the good work A-B Tech.

  6. Zara

    The way students are treated and employees are treated can be very different at A-B Tech. In the last five years three African American women have either left or been forced out. Institutionalized prejudice is hard to pin down but is deadly to diversity. Sure the college is great at posting pictures of people of color on their website, Ms. Utley has been one of them often, but using black people as totems and then not supporting them is not a commitment to diversity. The colleges senior positions are all white people and mostly older males, where there is an absence of diversity in seniority there is ALWAYS discrimination in the environment. It’s a formula that white people need to make themselves aware of.

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