Responses from an anonymous 2013 faculty survey conducted by the Garden City Community College Faculty Senate paint a picture of a turbulent and troubled work environment at the college at the time, including specific complaints and concerns regarding GCCC President Herbert Swender and then-Executive Vice President Dee Wigner.
Faculty senators at that time said they presented copies of the online survey’s results to Swender and all members of the Board of Trustees, who they say largely disregarded the information.
Nearly five years later, in May, representatives of the 2017-18 Faculty Senate presented a report to the current Board of Trustees that accused Swender of bullying, intimidating, sexually harassing and retaliating against employees over his tenure at the college. Arguing that Swender’s behavior created a toxic work environment at the college and ultimately could cost the institution its accreditation, the report called for the board to terminate the president.
Last week, the board announced it had retained Kansas City attorney Greg Goheen to investigate the claims made in the report.
Some of the claims, a compilation of more than 20 faculty members’ accounts, are echoed in the 2013 survey, which includes responses from 52 faculty members of the 61 invited to take it.
The survey was conducted by the 2012-13 Faculty Senate, comprised of President Linda Morgan, Vice President Terry Lee, Secretary Leonard Rodenbur, senators Larry Pander, Pati Pfenninger and Deb Robinson and alternate Stacey Carr.
Rodenbur said the senate discussed the survey and how to approach it in meetings. Lee said many discussions were held in closed sessions and therefore do not show up in the minutes.
Lee, Pander and Rodenbur said the senate asked Laura York Guy, GCCC student media coordinator and media instructor at the time, to help create the online survey.
The survey generator, sogosurvey.com, sent invitations to faculty members’ emails and tracked the IP addresses in a way that would not recognize forwarded emails and only accepted one response per faculty member, Guy said. The specificity was intentional, she said. The Faculty Senate wanted to be able to prove the survey represented the voices of individual faculty members if challenged.
“We’re in academia. As (academics), we have a background in providing evidence and we wanted this to be irrefutable evidence. And (we) did what we could to put mechanisms in place so that that would not be a question,” Guy said.
The survey was distributed for several reasons. Morgan and Guy said then-trustee Bill Clifford informally asked the senate to perform a “climate check” of the faculty.
Clifford said he does not remember the conversation, or anything regarding the survey, but that it was common for him to ask for faculty feedback in casual conversation.
The survey would give the Board of Trustees insight into the faculty’s work environment, but was also meant as a potential tool for Swender, who became president in April 2011, Guy said, by giving the relatively new president insight into faculty complaints or thoughts concerning various campus operations.
Lee said the survey was meant as way to address or resolve faculty frustrations “in-house,” to alert GCCC administration and the Board of Trustees of concerns without “(airing) our dirty laundry in the public.”
“We, as the Faculty Senate at that time, tried to make the board aware, and the president aware, that things were not good … And it went nowhere,” Lee said.
The survey asked faculty members to fill in several short answer questions relating to the college’s work environment, instructional budget, online courses, the then recently implemented four-day course week, and the effectiveness of the Faculty Senate and the faculty union, the Garden City Higher Education Association.
The first question asked faculty members to describe the college’s work environment, or climate, using a weather metaphor. Though several responses referenced “sunny” or “partly cloudy," nearly half of the responses alluded to a more destructive or concerning environment.
“Tornado, hurricane, thunderstorm with massive basketball sized hail and lightning. Staying undercover to avoid hail, wind, and blowing debris,” read one response.
“Stormy with a chance of tornado. It’s bad where you have to watch your every move. Something could come up at any time and you could be fired,” read another.
A third: “Severe weather warnings. High probability for high winds, tornadoes, damaging hail. One foot in the basement. Survival kit ready. Ear to the job market.”
There are recurring trends in the responses. Faculty members at that time mentioned frustrations with the IT department and college’s malfunctioning technology and the recent switch to a four-day week and 40-minute class periods. They called for better communication, especially with GCCC administrators.
On a question that asked whether faculty members felt they had input in GCCC decisions that directly impacted their jobs, faculty members largely said no, or that they were heard in their department or program but not on the wider campus.
Eight responders directly referenced administrators retaliating against faculty members or instructors fearing for their jobs, with a ninth saying they were a member of GCHEA “for protection.” They referenced feeling like a target, feared being fired if they “upset the wrong people,” and Swender or Wigner striking out at those who questioned them or shared differing opinions.
”It appears that there are a select few, in the administrative team, that have their own personal agendas that stems from past history. So how can an employee be more effective and efficient in work IF what they see is people leaving by their ‘own’ choice and wonder, ‘am I next’?” a responder wrote.
“I would like to have a voice without the fear of being fired or the subject of Dr. Swender or Dee Wigner’s wrath,” another said in the survey.
Swender and Wigner are mentioned by name or title often in the responses. Several responders asked for their removal or a change in administrative leadership at the college, citing frustrations with communication, lack of faculty input, mismanaged budget priorities, inefficiency, controlling or micromanaging behavior or a fear of retaliation. Many responders expressed similar issues with the administration as a whole, with the exception of then-vice president of instructional services Bruce Exstrom, who received favorable responses.
The survey was not discussed during the Faculty Senate report at the June, July or August 2013 Board of Trustees meetings, according to meeting minutes. Lee said the senate purposely did not include the survey in its report because it did not want the faculty’s concerns to become public. He said they intended to solve problems “in-house.”
Lee, Guy and Rodenbur said the survey was mailed to the homes of the 2013 trustees, with Lee and Guy adding that senators hand delivered copies to Clifford and Merilyn Douglass, who was Board of Trustees chair at the time. Clifford and Douglass did not deny receiving the survey but said they did not remember anything about the survey, its contents or the board’s decision regarding it.
Terri Worf, Jeff Crist, Steve Sterling and the late Ron Schwartz also sat on the board at the time. Worf said she does remember getting a copy. She said it was hard to consider a survey that did not “name the individual who authored it,” referring to the anonymous format.
Lee said he and Morgan met with Swender to personally give him a copy of the survey’s results. The senate wanted to make Swender aware of the findings and share them as he saw fit, Guy said. When they met with him again shortly after, Lee said Swender said he did not plan to follow up on the survey because it was anonymous.
“The only comment I remember is Herb saying ‘I just threw it in the corner.’ ‘It’s garbage, I just threw it in the corner,’” Lee said.
Morgan confirmed the meeting and that Swender disregarded the survey. During the Faculty Senate report at the August 2013 Board of Trustees meeting, Lee referenced private summer meetings with Swender and Exstrom, according to the board’s minutes.
The minutes for the Faculty Senate’s meeting on Aug. 29, 2013, address the survey and allude to the senate discussing how to move forward with the findings.
Lee and Rodenbur said they heard little back from the board regarding the survey, and it eventually came to nothing.
Rodenbur and Guy said the senate had hoped that the survey would begin a dialogue with administrators about faculty concerns at the college.
Guy said Swender’s response contradicted with the president’s earlier insistence that he valued all employees and wanted to bring the college together.
“This really felt like a slap in the face...” Guy said. “It’s one thing to receive (the survey), to then meet with us and say, 'talk to me about this more, help me understand it,' and question it. Which is truly what we had hoped — that it would start a dialogue with him … Leadership means finding out how your employees view their workplace, how they view one another, and identifying various perspectives, and then making sure we’re all in alignment on our priorities and the direction that we want to move. And, in that moment, when he rejected that, it signaled to us that our involvement was not valued nor was it needed."
Lee said the experience offers insight into the decisions of the Faculty Senate today, particularly their decision to file a public report to the board.
“I see why the (2018) Faculty Senate tried to go this route, because, historically, we’ve already been the other route where we tried to keep it in-house and fix it among the family. And Herb is big on talking about family. We tried to fix it in the family. Well, that didn’t work. Sometimes you have to go outside the family,” Lee said.
GCCC attorney Randy Grisell said Monday that Swender declined to comment on the 2013 survey.
On May 29, Swender released a statement addressing the 2018 Faculty Senate report’s accusations. He said, “this was the first time that either the Board of Trustees or I received any written complaint from these particular faculty members.” It’s unclear which faculty members he is referring to.
Crist, Sterling and Wigner did not return calls seeking comment.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.