Board, faculty and community members crowded into Garden City Community College’s Beth Tedrow Student Center on Thursday afternoon to celebrate Ryan Ruda, the college president that had lead students and staff through the 2018-19 school year.

Guests were eager to speak to him, waiting in line to shake his hand, said community member Maxine Atkinson.

“Most everyone there was happy that he’s our president,” she said.

Since former GCCC President Herbert Swender exited the college in August after constant and considerable criticism, Ruda has stood at the forefront of the campus as acting, interim and permanent president. The academic year has not been a quiet one, from staff resignations and restructures to accreditation evaluation to the ongoing tragedy of a football player who died on campus.

But before that, and amidst it, Ruda has worked to stabilize the college after months defined by frustration and instability. And to some, at least, it’s worked.

“I hear lots of positive comments from faculty and staff. A lot of them come up and say ‘Thank you for putting Ryan in.’ I have not heard any negative comments,” said GCCC Board of Trustees member Leonard Hitz.

 

The past year

Within days of Swender’s departure from the college in early August, the GCCC Board of Trustees named Ruda acting president. A month later, they named him interim.

Days before Swender left his position, GCCC football recruit Braeden Bradforth, a freshman from New Jersey, died of exertional heat stroke after his first day of practice at the college. The college’s response to Bradforth’s death has sparked frustration from Bradforth’s mother, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, her attorney, Jill Greene, and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., as the family long went without answers.

After completing and ultimately releasing an internal review, the college announced this month that it would seek outside counsel to conduct an investigation into Bradforth’s death. Administrators have yet to meet with the family.

Ruda inherited an investigation Swender opened into an email that momentarily suspended the college’s IT department suspended. Human Relations Director Emily Clouse resigned from the college, shortly followed by Athletic Director John Green.

Not long after, Ruda reinstated two IT technicians, promoted several staff members and stripped CFO Glendon Forgey of his CFO duties. An email Ruda Board of Trustees then-Chair Steve Martinez listed Ruda’s reasons not to renew Forgey’s contract. A physical copy of the email was sent anonymously to The Telegram at the time and was confirmed by Martinez. Forgey refuted all of Ruda’s concerns.

The campus also welcomed a site visit from a team from the Higher Learning Commission, evaluating the college’s accreditation, active but on probation due to infractions in 2016. The HLC team responded positively and the college now awaits a final ruling on the probation this summer.

In January, when the Board of Trustees received a completed report from third-party investigator Greg Goheen into allegations lodged against Swender, the college published it online. The report was met with frustration from community members, who argued it appeared biased in Swender’s favor. Ruda said this month the board does not have plans to reassess the report.

Later that month, attorneys Jean Lamfers and Bob Lewis sued the college and Swender on behalf of several clients who are faculty members. The case is still being reviewed by both parties.

In February, the board named Ruda president. They opted to appoint Ruda directly instead of conducting an outside search.

“Leadership is a choice, not a position. You don’t step into any leadership role so that you have a position. You step into it because it’s a choice, it’s a calling, and you want to make a difference…” Ruda said. “ Leadership is never easy, no matter what the situation is you're stepping into, whether you’re walking into any kind of leadership role ... But it’s how you deal with that adversity and it’s how you work through that adversity that truly determines how it is you’re going to be as a leader. And that’s something you have to demonstrate on a daily basis.”

 

Steps forward

Amidst controversy or the ripples of past controversy, Ruda said he came into the job hoping to stabilize the college. And to many, he’s done well.

Following Swender and the environment left in his wake was a hard job, harder than what most college presidents likely face, said Lamfers, who has represented critics of the college for over a year and often publicly expressed criticism. Under Ruda, she sees a shift toward the college environment she and her clients have been fighting for, one built on openness and respect for employees.

In time, she said she hopes he will be able to deal with the issues she, Lewis and her clients raised, such as Title IX infractions.

Ruda has constantly echoed his dedication to transparency, and the philosophy has filtered into his actions, too. From his early weeks in office, Ruda has held several Facebook Live Q&A sessions and casual Coffee with the President forums with the public around town. The efforts will continue, he said, and he plans to work with all factions of the community.

“With those open lines of communication, that’s how you determine everything from how it is that the operations at the college are going to things that we need to improve to whether there are new ideas for programs that we need to be looking at,” Ruda said.

And that openness has been noticed. Toni Douglass, who has for months been outspoken on the goings-on at the college, said Ruda and other administrators have been happy to discuss any topic with her and she appreciates his personally reaching out to the community. She believes Ruda to be an advocate against problems that had previously surfaced at the college, like sexual harassment. And he has brought with him a calming energy to staff and community alike, she said.

“The whole vibe at the school is better,” Douglass said.

The feelings were echoed by faculty members Holly Chandler and Phil Hoke, who heads the Faculty Senate.

A clear shift from Swender’s presidency to Ruda’s has been communication and collaboration between administration,faculty and staff. When Ruda wants to make a decision, he reaches out to relevant faculty members or students, she said. He calls all-employee meetings and practices an open-door policy, fostering a “feeling of empowerment that comes from being listened too,” Hoke said.

It’s a new work culture that wasn’t present when Swender was in charge, Chandler said. The college used to be run from the top down, she said. Now, it feels like everyone is working together.

The transparency hasn’t been universally consistent — Atkins-Ingram, Greene and Smith have repeatedly expressed frustration at the college’s lack of or delayed responses following Bradforth’s death.

And hours before Ruda was named president in February, the Board of Trustees suspended the public comments portion of its meeting, silencing a platform used constantly by community members to express concerns and frustrations for over months. Board Chair Blake Wasinger noted at the time that he had discussed the decision with Ruda beforehand.

The latter discrepancy especially is one of the reasons the college still has work to do, said community member Zach Worf, who spoke out against the college last year. He said the suspension of public comment shows the board’s disinterest in listening to the public, and Ruda should encourage the board to right that.

He said he hopes the college would take action to be more involved in the community, such as through community service, and sever ties with systems in place under Swender, like the college’s accounting firm and attorney, Randy Grisell.

“I would say things are better. They’re definitely better, but they’re not where we need to be...” Worf said. “I think Ryan does a good job at playing the middle line and not taking a stance either way.”

Alongside events that made headlines, Ruda said he is proud of several academic and program-related steps the college made this year.

He said this year, the college has taken steps to up enrollment by expanding its John Deere and other career and technical programs, and worked with Garden City USD 457, Holcomb USD 363, Wichita State University and the state of Kansas to forge an affordable, local pathway for prospective teachers, allowing students to earn their teaching associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Garden City while working locally as a paraprofessional.

As the college encourages upper level science and math education options with local chemistry, physics and calculus courses, Ruda also hopes to boost the college’s fine arts programs, including vocal and instrumental music, art and theater. As he said when he became president, Ruda wants to make GCCC the fine arts hub for southwest Kansas.

As he moves forward, with the college’s centennial on the way, he hopes to continue the work done so far and build on it.

Among the things he is most proud of is the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education” magazine selecting GCCC as 2019’s “Most Promising Places to Work in Community Colleges” award winner. After months of bumps and bruises for employees, the honor is soothing.

“That’s not an accolade or something that happens by happenstance,” Ruda said. “That happens because you have very committed and dedicated and loyal employees that see the vision and know the vision in the values and possess the values of the college. And we’re working in the same direction.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.