Leader of NC community college group also operates college search firm

dkane@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

Since 2007, Donny Hunter has served as the paid leader of a nonprofit association made up of trustees from the state’s 58 community colleges. The association’s mission is to help further the “aims, goals and development of North Carolina community colleges.”

In that job, Hunter is paid a salary. He also is paid fees to help the state’s community colleges find presidents, and he successfully lobbied legislators in 2010 to remove a cap on school presidents’ pay.

But Hunter also has another business: He is a paid headhunter for community colleges across the country. He conducts searches for out-of-state colleges through his private business, National Search & Education Consulting.

It’s not unusual for nonprofit education associations to be in the business of helping member institutions find leaders. The N.C. School Board Association conducts many of the superintendent searches for school districts.

But Hunter’s dual role as a headhunter for the association and in his private business can be difficult to untangle. Hunter said, for example, that his private business does not conduct searches for North Carolina community colleges. But the business’s website claims credit for North Carolina searches that were conducted by the N.C. Association of Community College Trustees – which is his employer.

Parker Chesson, a former North Carolina community college president who works for a competing search firm, said people in community college circles have questioned Hunter’s dual roles.

“I could see where it would raise some questions,” Chesson said, “and I think Donny is going to have to answer those for the leaders of the trustees association.”

One question that Chesson acknowledged is whether Hunter’s out-of-state searches could recruit an in-state president.

Hunter, who lives in Lee County, said there is no conflict of interest in his association position and his private business.

“The trustees association would not enter into any business relationship that was a conflict of interest, and neither would I,” Hunter said.

But Hunter and association officials provided little explanation as to how he is paid for his search work for the association, nor would he produce any written legal opinions that would have cleared him to do the work. He said he did not have to because the association is a private nonprofit.

“My work arrangement, quite frankly, with the association, and my compensation from the association, is within the affairs of the association,” he said.

‘No legal ... issues’

Some of those compensation details, however, are public as part of the association’s federal tax forms. The most recent return shows that Hunter was paid $105,000 for his role as president in the year ending in June 2012. It also shows he received $117,666 in fees for constituent services.

Hunter acknowledged that the fees were related to his presidential searches for the association, but he did not specify how.

Robert Comer, the community college trustee association’s chairman and a board member of Surry Community College, said in an interview that he was aware that Hunter had a private presidential search business, but he added he didn’t have much knowledge about Hunter’s search work. An attorney later provided a written statement attributed to Comer in which he said, “This arrangement raises no legal or ethical issues.”

The association’s vice chairwoman, Lyn Austin of Garner, said she saw no conflict because “there’s no pressure for anybody to use one company above another.”

Hunter is a former North Carolina state school superintendent of the year and a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, considered the state’s highest civilian honor. A former community college system official who worked as a liaison to state lawmakers for several years, Hunter left his state job in 2002 and became a partner in a search firm started by Jeff Hockaday, a former community college president.

Hunter took over the firm when Hockaday retired, and he gave it its present name in 2007, shortly after he became the trustee association president.

As association president, Hunter successfully lobbied lawmakers in 2010 to lift the cap on how much localities could pay toward a community college president’s salary. The Cape Fear Community College board then used the lifting of the cap to convert $92,000 in benefits to salary for President Eric McKeithan, who then retired at a higher pension. Two years later, Hunter, working for the association, landed a $22,270 contract to find Cape Fear’s next president.

Hunter said he was unaware that Cape Fear and other community colleges would use the new freedom from caps to boost the pensions of presidents who soon would retire. He said the end of the cap has had little effect on his ability to land N.C. community college president searches so far and might slow the process down because colleges can now pay more money to keep presidents from leaving.

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