Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of articles about the Top 10 local news stories of 2018.
On May 8, representatives from the Garden City Community College Faculty Senate presented a 28-page report to the college’s Board of Trustees calling for the termination of former President Herbert Swender.
Almost exactly three months later, after petitions and trustee recalls and faculty and community discussions arose in support and opposition of the college and its administration, Swender exited the college in a mutual termination agreement.
The longstanding turmoil at the college, both surrounding and since the separation, is The Telegram’s No. 1 news story of 2018.
The May 8 report was a detailed list of compiled grievances from more than 20 faculty members regarding GCCC under Swender, pointing to alleged instances of his bullying, intimidating and sexually harassing employees, covering up sexual harassment or other issues in the athletic department, and retaliating against those that crossed him, among other issues. It claimed that Swender’s leadership and behavior would put the college’s accreditation, which was and is on a two-year probation since 2017, at further risk.
After a closed special meeting on May 16, the Board of Trustees decided to hire a third-party professional to investigate and determine the truth within the Senate’s report, which GCCC Attorney Randy Grisell said at the time the board would use to make a decision regarding Swender’s position at the college.
The board ultimately retained Kansas City attorney Greg Goheen, a shareholder at midwestern law firm McAnany, Van Cleave & Phillips, P.A., for the job on June 12. Several weeks later, the Board of Trustees backed up a statement of assurance promising that participants in the investigation would face no retaliation from the college.
Response to the report
At a Faculty Senate meeting shortly following the May trustees’ meeting, faculty members both supported and felt blindsided by the report. Some did not share or agree with its concerns, while others wished they had been included or notified before it was presented to the board.
The concerns in the report were not new. Anonymous responses from a 2013 faculty survey conducted by the Faculty Senate echo complaints in the Senate’s 2018 report. Comments from the 52 faculty participants in the survey discussed a stormy work environment, referenced fearing for their jobs and claimed administrators, specifically Swender and former Executive Vice President Dee Wigner, struck out at those who questioned them.
The Senate’s 2018 report made waves in the community as well. In May, community members Joel Erskin and Zach Worf circulated petitions in response to the Senate report, Erskin’s calling for support for retaining Swender as president and Worf’s calling for Swender’s termination.
Worf said at the time the petition, which initially garnered 29 signatures, showed that the community believed and rallied behind the faculty. Erskin saw Swender as competent and fiscally responsible, and argued faculty members were mistaking his accountability for hostility. In a group Facebook message asking for signatures, he said there would be “a reckoning” for the “slime in the shadow” that criticized the former president.
Due to what Erskin said was miscommunication, Erskin placed many names on his petition without their knowledge, and he said someone threatened to sue him for forging signatures. Several supported his sentiment, but it’s not certain how many.
Brewing concern thrust itself at board members too. On May 16, an edited video of Trustee Leonard Hitz hugging students as they crossed the stage at graduation was emailed anonymously to trustees and local media claiming sexual harassment. Only GC3 Media and the president’s office seemingly had access to the footage.
Throughout June, community members submitted ultimately denied petitions to recall all six trustees, one petition targeting Hitz, and others targeting the other five and just Trustees Jeff Crist and Terri Worf.
Swender leaves, staff switches
On Aug. 6, at a special meeting, the Board of Trustees announced a settlement, separation and consulting agreement between GCCC, the board and Swender, ending his role as president in a mutual termination.
The agreement ended Swender’s presidential term immediately, though he would maintain an off-site consulting position with the college — and his established salary and benefits — through the end of the year. He also received an additional $278,600, the value of one year of his salary and benefits. Invested community members largely opposed the settlement; though, Hitz said it was the best the board could get without legal fees.
Swender said in a statement at the time the decision was a difficult one, but he valued some “noted individuals” at GCCC he believed could make a positive difference.
The summer and early fall also saw other significant shake-ups in the college administration. Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Ryan Ruda took up Swender’s duties following his separation and was named Interim President on Sept. 11.
Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kristi Tempel resigned in May, to be replaced by Ashley Salazar in September.
On July 20, amidst a still unresolved investigation into alleged email monitoring at the college, the college’s three-man IT department, IT Coordinator Andy Gough, Network Manager Andrew Knoll and PC Technician David Larsen, were placed on an indefinite suspension with pay. Knoll and Larsen were reinstated on Sept. 12 and Gough, still on suspension, resigned from the college in December.
Emily Clouse, vice president of administrative services and director of Human Resources, resigned on Aug. 30 and Athletic Director John Green on Aug. 31.
Following the abrupt removal of his CFO and IT oversight duties by Ruda, Vice President of Business Affairs and CFO Glendon Forgey left the college for a similar role at Dodge City Community College at the end of September after just three months with the college.
Former Fort Scott Community College CFO Karla Armstrong stepped into Forgey’s position on Oct. 29.
The college moved forward in the wake of Swender’s separation.
In the first week of November, the Higher Learning Commission, the institution that determines the college’s accreditation status, visited GCCC as part of a process to possibly lift the college’s probation, a visit that was perceived as positive.
The board’s presidential search is slowly moving forward, and Ruda, an oft-mentioned community favorite for the position, has thrown his hat into the ring.
And community members still show concerns. Attorneys Jean Lamfers, who has represented critics of the college since May, and Bob Lewis stood before the board in December with claimed evidence of a history of unresolved sexual harassment and mishandled Title IX violations at the college, as well as a recent example of retaliation.
In mid-December, after an investigation that stretched longer than the college or the community initially expected, Goheen submitted his final investigative report to GCCC. The report broke down each of the Senate’s allegations, finding little legal substance in the Faculty Senate’s original concerns. Distrust had clearly built between Swender and the faculty, and perhaps communication and a review of policies, particularly grievances policies, would help mend any simmering unrest, he said in the report.
Lamfers and other community members who spoke as witnesses in the investigation claimed Goheen had left out many local accounts and that his determination skewed in favor of the college and Swender.
Ruda, Grisell and trustees have so far refrained from commenting publicly about the report until after the board has had a chance to review it at 6 p.m. on Jan. 2 in the Endowment Room of the Beth Tedrow Student Center.
After seven months of protest and listening and compromise and lasting frustrations from those on all sides who all believe they’re in the right, the college is still facing the ramifications of several faculty members who chose to speak up.
Contact Amber Friend at email@example.com.