The Garden City Community College Board of Trustees announced a settlement, separation and consulting agreement between the board, the college and GCCC President Herbert Swender Monday at a special meeting, which resulted in a mutual termination of Swender’s role as president at the college effective immediately.
Trustee Merilyn Douglass first referenced the agreement in a motion after the first of two of the board’s closed sessions Monday. After she spoke, the room full of nearly 100 faculty, staff and community members, several of which have been campaigning for Swender’s removal for months, broke into applause and cheered.
One community member, Toni Douglass, stood up with a large poster board sign reading “Bye!”
“About time,” she said, as the applause died down.
The agreement ended Swender’s tenure as president of the college, removing his executive or administrative power and title and not affording him a provided office on campus or elsewhere. Under the agreement, he will be employed by the college as a consultant through Jan. 1, 2019, receiving his current salary and benefits, which include full family health and dental insurance, life insurance, retirement payments and stipends for his promotion services, vehicle, cell phone and membership at The Golf Club at Southwind, among other benefits. This employment status can not be terminated early under the agreement.
Trustee Leonard Hitz said the consultation would be on an “as-requested basis” and was likely included to justify Swender’s continued paycheck.
“It was the best we could get without a lot of legal fees,” Hitz said about the agreement.
Swender also will receive a lump sum of $278,600, which GCCC Attorney Randy Grisell said was the value of one year of Swender’s benefits and $157,090 salary. The lump sum will be paid to HJS Consulting, LLC, a limited liability company owned by Swender, by Jan. 15, 2019. According to the agreement, neither Swender’s ongoing salary and benefits nor the lump sum can be reduced or set off.
When the lump sum was announced at the board’s meeting, several onlookers called out in disagreement.
The decision comes almost exactly three months after the GCCC Faculty Senate presented an extensive report to the board detailing bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and retaliation allegations against Swender and concerns about the college’s upcoming accreditation review later this year, among other issues. In June, Kansas City attorney Greg Goheen was retained to investigate the report’s claims.
Merilyn Douglass, Board Chair Steve Martinez and Trustee Jeff Crist refrained from commenting on why the board and Swender came to the mutual agreement, after months of public pushback, though Grisell, Crist and Hitz said it had nothing to do with Goheen’s investigation, which Hitz said is ongoing. Regarding the agreement, Hitz said the board “thought it was the right thing to do.”
“It’s the thing that had to happen for the college to go forward,” Crist said.
Swender did not respond to a call seeking comment, but Executive Assistant to the President Debbie Atkinson provided a prepared statement from the former president. In it, Swender thanked the board, Atkinson and “many other positive faculty and staff members who are dedicated to the success of GCCC” and reflected on challenges in the early days of his tenure, such as “enrollment and facility improvement.”
“Making this change was a difficult decision, however, I look forward to spending more time with family and friends. I have always valued the power of good people and clearly GCCC has some notable individuals whom I believe truly make a positive difference,” Swender said in the statement.
Swender’s three-year contract, which was renewed July 1, stipulated that the contract could be terminated through mutual agreement between Swender and the college, Swender’s medical issues or death, resignation, or cause. If the president voluntarily resigned, he would receive any accrued vacation leave and, if he resigned before Jan. 1, 2023 and was not employed by an employer that provided health insurance coverage, family health insurance through December 2023. If he was terminated for cause, he would receive six months worth of salary, health and life insurance and certain benefits.
Under the mutual termination agreement termination, the parties settled on a compromise of what the board contractually owed Swender in return for the president's immediate termination, Martinez said at the meeting.
For Toni Douglass, Faculty Senate Phil Hoke and GCCC Academic Advisor Micah Koksal, the decision was a good first step.
Koksal said she was glad board members were listening to repeated employee concerns, and Toni Douglass said she felt other employees, including GCCC Athletic Director John Green, also should be removed.
“I think the idea of having (Swender) removed and the separation is a good idea. I’m a little stunned by the buyout, but I’m certain there are reasons behind it. And now, what we really want to be able to start doing is we want to start the healing process at the college … We’re hopeful,” Hoke said.
Toni Douglass’ lawyer, Jean Lamfers, who is representing several community members and college employees at odds with the college, said she has reached out to the college’s insurance counsel, Lewis Brisbois, to find a resolution to issues raised by her clients involving GCCC in recent months. If they can’t find a resolution, Lamfers said she and her colleagues may pursue lawsuits against the college.
Justin Smith, director of the Kansas National Education Association Southwest UniServ, who has been following developments at GCCC in recent weeks, said the KNEA was glad Swender was removed given employee descriptions of an unhealthy work environment. He said he did not understand the size of the settlement payment or the continuing consultation position.
“If he’s that bad, why is he even around? Why is the taxpayer paying 300,000 plus dollars?” Smith said.
Swender has been criticized by several employees for fostering a toxic work environment, and a Faculty Senate survey from 2013 showed a history of concerns with Swender, with several anonymous responders referencing fear of losing their jobs due to retaliation from Swender or the college’s administration.
The college has weathered other controversies and investigations this year. In April and May, community members, including Toni Douglass, addressed the board about sexual harassment allegations regarding former GCCC cheer coach Brice Knapp. Later in the summer, the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference issued sanctions against the college’s volleyball program after Green allowed GCCC volleyball player Shaney Tiumalu to stay with him free of charge during the summer of 2017, which violates KJCCC and NJCAA rules.
The college reached out to the Garden City Police Department twice in July, once in regards to closed government documents regarding Hitz that were kept at the college and mailed anonymously to The Telegram, and another time after an employee noticed irregular monitoring of employee emails.
The former resulted in an investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation into how the documents came to The Telegram, and the latter led to an independent investigation by IT services provider ConvergeOne and the suspension of the IT department’s three employees.
Swender was hired on Feb. 11, 2011, replacing interim president Joseph Emmons of Lawrence, who had served since August 2010 after Carol Ballantyne retired after 10 years as GCCC president.
Swender had previously served for a decade — 2000 to 2011 — as president of Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas. Prior to that, he served as Frank Phillips’ vice president and dean of instruction from 1996 to 1999.
Swender was the sixth permanent president of GCCC. In addition to Ballantyne, Swender’s predecessors included: L.C. Crouch, 1965 to 1971; the late Raymond Wamsley, 1971 to 1976; the late Thomas Saffell, 1976 to 1988; and James Tangeman, 1988 to 2000.
A Chanute native, Swender also served from 1992 to 1996 as vice president and dean of instructional services at Independence Community College. He previously was an instructor from 1983 to 1992 at Allen County Community College in Iola, including service as division director from 1987 to 1992. He also coached the Allen County men’s golf team from 1983 to 1987.
Swender earned his doctorate in higher education administration at Oklahoma State University in 1992; a specialist in education degree at Pittsburg State University in 1986; and a master's of science in education at Pittsburg State in 1983. He completed a bachelor's of science in education at Pittsburg State in 1982 and an associate's of arts degree in 1980 at Neosho County Community College in Chanute.
Swender and his wife, Diana, have three children: H.J., who is employed by American Warrior in Garden City; Whitney and Austin.
Contact Amber Friend at email@example.com. Brett Marshall contributed to this story.