Garden City Community College President Herbert Swender has issued his first statements since a May 8 GCCC Board of Trustees meeting, when a report presented by the Faculty Senate accused him of creating a hostile work environment.
The report accuses Swender of bullying, intimidating, sexually harassing and retaliating against faculty members and ultimately calls for his termination. The report also raises concerns that if Swender continues to run the school as he does, he could cost the college its accreditation when the Higher Learning Commission reviews the school's status later this year. The HLC put the school on a two-year probation in 2017, and peer reviewers will visit the campus in November.
In a written statement dated May 29 and addressed to "the GCCC Family and Community," a copy of which Swender sent to The Telegram, the GCCC president refers to the report in general as the efforts of a "vocal few," and that the report and allegations within it, "have filled the void with inaccurate information, further fueled by social media."
In regards to the report's claim that the college's accreditation process could be in jeopardy under the his leadership, Swender wrote that he is confident the college is in a good position to be successful in the reaffirmation process with the HLC. He wrote that GCCC Vice President of Instruction and Student Services and Chief Academic Officer Ryan Ruda, who manages the HLC process, "has assured me and the Board that the HLC process has been and continues to be on schedule."
In the letter, Swender refutes the report's claim that his lack of leadership and failure to comply with HLC requirements was hampering the accreditation process, saying "I consider the accreditation of the utmost importance and want to assure the community we are doing everything in our power to resolve the matter with the HLC. The particular allegation — that I or others would intentionally instruct members of our staff and administration not to comply with the recommendations of the HLC — is simply false."
Swender wrote in his letter that Ruda has expressed concerns about the Faculty Senate report.
“(Ruda) reiterated that at no time did I or any other person instruct him not to collect information essential for a successful reaffirmation process,” Swender wrote in his letter, in reference to an allegation in the report that from 2011 to 2015, he directed the faculty to stop performing program reviews and maintaining certain required records.
“It was the lack of Board oversight of his actions and his decisions that resulted in the College being put on probation,” the Faculty Senate report states. “… One of Dr. Swender’s most essential duties was to insure we had the personnel and policies in place that would assure we maintained future accreditation.”
Ruda did not return phone calls or an email seeking comment.
As for the statement made in the report, GCCC Faculty Senate President Phil Hoke said he stands behind it.
At the beginning of his letter, Swender highlighted some of the the accolades the college has received during his tenure, including an increase in enrollment and the launch of the only ROTC program at a two-year college in the country.
“It is disheartening to say the least, to see it disparaged by a few individuals in the manner we have experienced in the last few weeks,” Swender wrote, referencing the Faculty Senate report.
Swender did not specifically respond to allegations that he had created a hostile work environment at GCCC. He alluded to his and other college administrators' and trustees', "obligation to maintain the confidentiality of information regarding our students and GCCC personnel."
He wrote that even though "certain members of the public who do not have these obligations have attacked us and demanded such information, we cannot respond by publicly disclosing protected information related to our personnel and students. The College’s General Counsel, Randy Grisell, and Chairman of our Board of Trustees, Steve Martinez, have consistently and properly guided us to ensure that we comply with these legal obligations. Unfortunately, a few vocal citizens and faculty do not understand or respect these restrictions. As we take our obligations seriously, it has created a void of information that has left the public with questions and some uncertainty."
Swender wrote that the document presented during the May 8 meeting had several inaccuracies.
“First the report was not approved by the Faculty Senate as a whole, but instead it represents a faction of some faculty members,” Swender wrote.
He also wrote that the report was the first time that he or the board had received any written complaints from “these particular faculty members.”
“We are continuing to review the contents of the document and I welcome the opportunity to work with the Board to remediate any legitimate issues and move GCCC forward,” Swender states.
Attempts to contact Swender for additional comment were unsuccessful.
Hoke, GCCC’s theatre department director and newly named Faculty Senate president, presented the report during the May 8 meeting. On Friday, he said he believes there are some inaccuracies in Swender's written statement.
“Where it suggests that it was not approved by Faculty Senate as a whole, that is incorrect,” Hoke said. “Faculty Senate did approve it as a whole.”
Hoke also referenced the May 11 Faculty Senate meeting, which was open to the public, where clarifications were made on the report and others expressed their concerns. He said he guarantees a majority of the faculty are supportive of the report.
Jean Lamfers, an attorney representing Hoke, said on Friday that she doesn’t know where Swender would have come up with the idea that the report wasn’t approved by the Faculty Senate.
“That could be that (Swender) doesn’t understand that it is a representative body,” Lamfers said. “It is not every faculty member.”
Hoke said that the mission statement of the Faculty Senate is to promote professional development among faculty, and to act as a liaison with the administration and Board of Trustees to advocate for the best interests of the faculty.
“If you look at that, we were completely following the mission of Faculty Senate," Hoke said. "To suggest that we were a rogue group, that is inaccurate and it doesn’t reflect what we were trying to do."
The Faculty Senate report prompted the Board of Trustees to hire an independent or third-party investigator to look into the allegations against Swender.
Swender wrote that the college has followed, and is continuing to follow the advice of legal counsel to “adhere to strict procedures and conduct investigations in order to make proper decisions,” in reference to the recent allegations of misconduct by college personnel.
“… I am confident that our efforts are conducted in a professional manner, according to standard practices, as advised by legal counsel,” Swender wrote.
According to Grisell, an investigator has yet to be retained as of Friday.
“The process of selecting an independent investigator is still ongoing,” Grisell said in an email on Friday. “The importance of selecting a highly qualified individual in several areas of inquiry, and one that will be completely unbiased and fair, are paramount considerations in guiding the selection.”
Grisell said previously that the board was looking for a professional with a background in education and civil rights law, as well as any of the other issues addressed in the report. The investigator would look into any and all allegations in the report and ultimately would be chosen by the board, Grisell said last month.
Grisell also said previously there is no set timeline for hiring an investigator. On Friday, he said the college has been working on hiring one since May 9, and that they would like to have one hired as soon as possible.
Contact Josh Harbour at email@example.com