During Tuesday night’s Garden City Community College Board of Trustees meeting, Faculty Senate President Sheena Hernandez called next year’s president, Philip Hoke, to the podium to read the faculty report.
He did, reading out information on the senate’s luncheon and awards and telling the board about the faculty’s unsung work toward the college’s accreditation. The Higher Learning Commission put the school on a two-year probation in 2017, and peer reviewers will visit the campus in November.
“There’s one other thing that this board does not know, and that is this: It does not matter...” Hoke said. “HLC is watching everything we are doing. They are hearing every report, every letter to the editor, every video on YouTube. We don’t need a site visit to tell us what their conclusion will be. They will shut us down if we do not clean house. Bring the documents forward.”
Board members then were given packets calling for their “immediate and effective action” in capped bold letters, and Hoke began to move through them page by page. The documents were extensive lists of faculty grievances, ultimately calling for the termination of GCCC President Herbert Swender.
The Telegram obtained a copy of the Faculty Senate's report.
When he latched onto a personal anecdote, Trustee Terri Worf reminded him to stick to the facts and summarize the report. When he read a statement from the document’s second page that accused Swender of belittling, denigrating, harassing and causing harm to students, employees and community volunteers, Trustee Merilyn Douglass asked if he had documentation to support his “pretty harsh words.”
Shortly after, about five minutes into Hoke’s review of the packet, GCCC attorney Randy Grisell said the board would not hear the instructor read through a long report with serious allegations against Swender and other administrators.
“I think the purpose of this particular portion of the agenda is to hear the report of the Faculty Senate, not to advance the agenda of certain faculty members who attack the president or the administration," Grisell said. "… So, we’ll take (the packet) under advisement, but I think that Mr. Hoke is exceeding the scope of this particular part of the agenda.”
After the meeting, Hernandez said Faculty Senate members had discussed some of their concerns before the board in the past, but with little results. From her perspective, they don’t listen. To her, cutting Hoke off played to this pattern.
“It was offensive. I'm still kind of reeling from it,” Hernandez said. “Best case scenario they would have listened ... And that didn't happen.”
The packet was a collaborative effort by the Faculty Senate, Hoke told The Telegram. Its information was gathered from more than 20 faculty members during a senate executive session, compiled by Hoke and reviewed by attorney La Rae Munk. It asks the board to listen to the many varied concerns and take action, specifically by firing and replacing Swender.
Hernandez said that while she couldn’t say the document speaks for all faculty members, she believes it speaks for most of them. Many faculty members are afraid to speak out because of a history of outspoken or open college employees being fired.
“The Faculty Senate speaks for faculty, and the Faculty Senate was unanimous,” Hernandez said, referring to the senate’s support for the packet and its contents.
The 28-page document is an encyclopedia of faculty grievances — some small, some systemic, but all directed at Swender and the hostile work environment faculty members say he’s fostered.
Swender declined to comment Tuesday, and trustees said they would need to look over the documents before making any judgements or decisions.
According to the packet, faculty and staff are in constant fear of losing their jobs should they defy Swender. It says they could be fired if they meet with any trustees, and that it recently has become more difficult for them to present and redress grievances to the board. The report alleges Swender ignored faculty members’ discomfort over mandatory prayers at in-services and threatened retaliation, including termination, for those that spoke to the media, and spread rumors about those who crossed him.
The packet also details an incident that Faculty Senate members believed was an unlawful search of employees' personal cell phones. At an in-service meeting in the spring of 2017, the senate report states, an employee allegedly recorded Swender’s criticisms of the HLC and sent the recording to KSN-TV. Afterward, as all employees ate together at a faculty and staff luncheon at the Clarion Inn, Swender reportedly told all GCCC personnel to hand their phones to the person sitting next to them. He instructed the employees to look through the phones to see who had sent the recording.
“Now two people know who contacted the press...” the document says Swender told the room, referring to the employees. “But a third person is about to know because you’d better tell me within the hour.”
The packet includes sexual harassment allegations against Swender. The senate report says faculty members witnessed Swender refer to a new faculty member as “Ms. Southwest Kansas,” and to a tenured instructor as “Hot Lips Houlihan.” The report also states that "on numerous occasions ... employees have been directed to 'come down' and receive 'birthday spankings.'"
At an assembly, according to the report, Swender put his arm around a female student and said she was “off limits for sexual activities” because he supposedly told her parents he’d look after her.
To Hoke and Hernandez, presenting the information is not pleasant, but necessary to improve the college. They’ve been silent for years, Hernandez said, and it was time to right wrongs and rebuild.
“I didn't enjoy what I did,” Hoke said. “From my perspective, I did what I did on behalf of the faculty because they came to me and they said, 'These are our concerns.' For me to step down would have been an act of cowardice."
In a phone interview Tuesday night, Kansas Press Association attorney Max Kautsch said he disagreed with Grisell’s decision to cut Hoke's presentation of the report short because the packet was compiled and presented by the Faculty Senate and the agenda item’s title, “Report from Faculty Senate,” was flexible to interpretation.
“Given that the title of the item on the agenda was incredibly broad, it seems unlikely that the board could shut down the speaker on the basis that the speech exceeded the scope of the agenda item,” Kautsch said.
At this point, social science instructor Leonard Rodenbur said, any further decisions are in the hands of the board.
Munk said the senate mailed copies of the packet to the HLC and Kansas Board of Regents before the meeting so they would receive it after GCCC’s trustees had a chance to review it.
The report addresses other issues, from concerns about the conduct of Athletic Director John Green, to the college’s partnership with National American University, to the ethics of Swender himself.
A community petition is currently circulating, calling for the resignation or termination of Swender, Green and Vice President of Administrative Services Emily Clouse in light of the college’s response to sexual harassment allegations against former cheer coach Brice Knapp. Community member Zach Worf gave each trustee a copy of the petition during the meeting's public comment session.
“If (the trustees are) not listening to faculty and they're not listening to their students, I would hope they would at least listen to the community members,” Hernandez said.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.