In the wake of a report from the Garden City Community College Faculty Senate accusing college president Herbert Swender of sexual harassment, bullying and creating a hostile work environment on campus, community members have aligned themselves either in support of the president and his administrative staff or against them.
On May 8, the Faculty Senate presented a report to the GCCC Board of Trustees calling for Swender’s termination. The 28-page report detailed faculty members’ accounts of what they described as Swender’s history of sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation and retaliation. The report also included complaints about the college’s relationship with National American University, as well as claims that the college administration didn't respond appropriately in the case of former GCCC cheerleading coach Brice Knapp, who resigned in late March just a few weeks before allegations of sexual harassment against him were made public at an April 10 trustees meeting.
At a special Board of Trustees Wednesday meeting, the board announced it would hire a third party investigator to look into the allegations made in the report.
The report painted a picture of a hostile work environment, one the report claims could cost the college its accreditation when the Higher Learning Commission reviews the college’s status this and next year.
Last week, community member Joel Erskin began circulating a petition in support of retaining Swender as college president. Erskin said the petition has accrued many signatures from prominent people in the community and argues against the allegations brought forward by the Faculty Senate. Erskin said he plans to present the petition to the Board of Trustees at their June meeting.
In a screen shot of a group Facebook message obtained by The Telegram, Erskin asked local residents for their support.
“I can testify (Swender and GCCC Athletic Director John Green) are stalwart, conservative, Christian men of good character and outstanding leadership. What is happening is nothing short of an attempted coup by liberal socialists and it has to be stopped,” Erskin said in the group message.
Erskin said he knew Swender and Green well and previously worked closely with both men at the college.
Erskin served as campus dean of NAU at the college from 2014 to 2016 and provided a free medical clinic to GCCC for 18 months. In December 2016, he was convicted of misbranding and administering off-brand Botox that was not federally approved as part owner and operator of Renovo Medical LLC and University Medical LLC in Garden City. Later, he faced a civil suit that alleged he misrepresented himself as a medical doctor to patients of Renovo when he was actually a physician’s assistant. In early March 2017, Erskin was permanently banned from practicing medicine in Kansas. Today, he said he flies planes for American Warrior, Inc., owner Cecil O'Brate.
To Erskin, the claims against Swender are ridiculous. He said most of the Faculty Senate’s report is untrue and the rest misconstrued. What faculty members saw as retaliation for speaking out against the college administration, Erskin said was Swender reprimanding employees for not doing their jobs. What some had interpreted as intimidation or sexual harassment from Swender, Erskin said were jokes. He said criticisms of Swender’s poor record keeping or disregard for HLC feedback should be attributed to a since-fired staff member who was assigned those duties.
The senate’s accusations, several of which Faculty Senate president Sheena Hernandez said were presented anonymously to protect the identities and jobs of involved employees, were unprovable and lacked evidence, Erskin said.
The Faculty Senate was coming after Swender for several reasons, Erskin said. He said faculty members were releasing their own retaliation after Swender supported a since-failed bill that would have taken away Kansas community college professors’ right to tenure, or that the allegations were politically motivated from “liberal socialist” employees to their conservative superior.
Hernandez and Faculty Senate Vice President Philip Hoke have told The Telegram that they presented the report to the board in order to protect the well-being of GCCC’s faculty and students and to ensure the college meets HLC’s accreditation criteria for the upcoming reviews. Hoke said the senate ultimately came forward because students were being hurt, adding that he was stunned by Erskin’s petition.
From Erskin’s perspective, faculty members who had contributed to the report were fighting against Swender’s accountability, not his hostility.
Erskin said Swender was not only a good president, but the best the college has seen in decades. Erskin has similar high praise for Green and Knapp, who he said also have been unfairly judged by college employees and the public.
Green is at the center of some recent controversy within the athletic department. The Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference handed down sanctions on May 9 causing the GCCC volleyball team to forfeit its wins for 2017, give up a pair of scholarships over the next two seasons and the program has been banned from postseason next season. The sanctions came after the college reported to the KJCCC that former Broncbuster volleyball player Shaney Tiumalu lived with Green, free of charge, during the summer of 2017, which is a violation of KJCCC and NJCAA rules.
“I absolutely think Swender should stay. I think he should continue to run the campus the way he is. He’s extremely fiscally responsible … We continue to grow at 3 to 5 percent per semester. Why would you not want that to be the president of your college that you pay taxes to?” Erskin said.
In a statement to The Telegram, O’Brate confirmed he signed Erskin’s petition, saying that “Under Dr. Swender’s leadership, GCCC has experienced unprecedented growth, success, and numerous accolades” and he hoped “any issues between faculty and administration could be worked out in a mature and positive manner.”
Local resident Richard Henkle said he signed because he believed Swender to be in the right in “the age-old conflict between the employed and their employer.”
“I hope the board does the right thing,” Henkle said.
While Erskin said he, family members and O’Brate were acquiring most signatures in person, Erskin provided The Telegram with a list of 11 names, including former GCCC Trustee Melvin Neufeld and current GCCC trustees Jeff Crist and Blake Wasinger, of people he said messaged him privately and showed support for his petition.
Wasinger said he messaged Erskin that he supported the community’s right to have a petition in support of Swender, but never meant to effectively sign it. He said he would reach out to Erskin regarding the misunderstanding.
Neufeld said he also did not realize his name had been added to the petition, but that he supported Erskin’s efforts, had planned on signing the petition and did not mind having his name associated with the effort.
Crist said he was not aware his name had been added and never meant to sign the petition, but that he would need to read it before making any further decisions.
Wednesday night, Erskin said he was meeting with his lawyer after someone threatened to sue him for allegedly forging signatures on the petition. He said he could not share the petition until all signatures were verified by attorneys.
In screenshots of Erskin’s Facebook group message obtained by the Telegram, Wasinger and Crist can each be seen posting Facebook’s thumbs up icon after Erskin’s initial message, which spoke out in support of Swender and said there would be "a reckoning" for the “conspirators,” “Jackals” and “slime in the shadow” that criticized the president.
Crist did not deny the giving the message a thumps up, but said he did not understand Facebook and did not recall Erskin’s comments. He said he supported Swender and what he’s done for GCCC and that the president had the right to defend himself through an investigation of the Faculty Senate’s report. Crist said, speaking personally, he’s sorry Swender “has to go through this.”
“I believe there’s a loyalty aspect to friendship. Again, I do consider Dr. Swender a friend,” Crist said.
Ahead of Wednesday night's special meeting of the trustees to discuss the Faculty Senate’s report, Crist and Wasinger said they would keep an open mind. Crist said that his relationship with Swender would not interfere with any decision he made as a board member.
Community members also have come out against the college’s administration. At the Board of Trustees’ May 8 meeting, Zach Worf presented a community letter to the board that called for the resignation or termination of Swender, Green and GCCC Vice President of Administrative Services Emily Clouse.
The letter, accompanied by 29 signatures from people in the community, expresses frustration with GCCC students feeling unsafe, harassed or discriminated against at the hands of college employees, and accuses the Board of Trustees of ignoring those issues.
It refers to Knapp’s recent resignation after several cheerleaders accused him of racism and sexual harassment. The letter claims that the college did not follow up with students after they issued complaints and that any investigation into Knapp lacked transparency, broke college policy and sought to cover up issues instead of resolve them.
Aaron Kurcharik, secretary for the GCCC Endowment Association, said he signed the letter because he saw it as a call to put students first and to create safe spaces for them at the college. Under the current administration, he said, students did not live and learn in a safe environment at GCCC.
Worf, chairman of the Finney County Democrats, said that as a taxpayer and father to children he once hoped would attend GCCC, he is committed to showing the board that community members rally behind the faculty. He said he stands by the Faculty Senate’s entire report, but said that even if only half of it were true, it still would need to be investigated.
“We all pay taxes. I don’t want my tax dollars going towards a corrupt organization…” Worf said. “It just seems that the college itself has no credibility.”
Swender and Green did not return calls seeking comment.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org