At a special meeting Wednesday night, the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees decided to hire a third party professional to investigate a report the GCCC Faculty Senate presented to the board last week.

Trustees Chairman Steve Martinez said the board met to discuss the report, which ultimately calls for the termination of the college’s president, Herbert Swender. The report, a compilation of more than 20 faculty members’ accounts, accuses Swender of fostering a hostile work environment by repeatedly harassing and retaliating against GCCC teachers.

This November, the Higher Learning Commission will visit the GCCC campus to review the accreditation status of the college, which is currently on probation. The Faculty Senate report claims Swender’s behavior and disregard for HLC reports likely would lead to the college losing its accreditation.

The board’s Wednesday meeting consisted of a pair of closed sessions between board members and GCCC attorney Randy Grisell to discuss the report’s allegations and decide the board’s response.

Closed meetings are allowed under many circumstances, including consultation with the board's attorney, but are not required. Martinez said trustees chose to discuss the report in a closed session because they had to meet with their counsel, Grisell, and maintain attorney/client confidentiality.

At 6:30 p.m., the board held a brief open session, during which Grisell told the board that everything said in the meeting would be confidential. When Trustee Leonard Hitz clarified the point, asking if any trustees would be able to inform Swender of what was said, Grisell said Swender was not the subject of the meeting, since the closed session was called to consult with counsel, not discuss personnel.

Grisell later clarified that the entire board would have to authorize the sharing of any information discussed during the closed session.

“The expectation is what's discussed in that meeting stays in that meeting,” he said.

After the open session, the board moved to a closed session for an hour.

As Grisell and the trustees met, more than 20 college employees and community members waited in the adjacent hallway. They stood, sat and socialized as two GCCC Police Department officers guarded the door.

Community member Toni Douglass said she came to support the eight young women who had spoken out against former GCCC cheer coach Brice Knapp, who has been accused of sexual harassment and making racist comments toward girls on the team.

Community member Maxine Atkinson said she wanted the board to take action, specifically against GCCC Athletic Director John Green. The Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference on May 9 handed down sanctions against the GCCC volleyball team, forcing it to forfeit wins, scholarships and be banned from postseason next season. The sanctions came after the college reported to the KJCCC that former Broncbuster volleyball player Shaney Tiumalu lived with Green, free of charge, during the summer of 2017, which is a violation of KJCCC and NJCAA rules.

Former GCCC faculty member Shelia Hendershot said she wanted to stand for and by the college’s faculty.

“So many of the faculty feel like they can’t be here, and so I thought I can and I will do that for my fellow teachers,” Hendershot said.

Community member Zach Worf said he had come as a taxpayer and father of children he said he could not in good faith send to the college in its current environment. To him, since the community supported the college with their tax dollars, all Finney County residents have a stake in how the institution is run.

“I want the board to see that there’s a community that’s ready to bring torches and pitchforks if they have to. We don’t want to go that route. We just want to see a proper channel used to find a conclusion,” Worf said.

When their hour was up, the trustees re-opened the meeting to announce they would move back into a closed session for 20 minutes. About 17 minutes into the second closed session, they opened their doors and those waiting in the hallway filed back into the room.

Martinez reopened the meeting, saying no binding action was taken in the closed session, then he read the following statement:

“We’ve heard the concerns of our constituents and of the faculty. As trustees, we are charged with ensuring our college is serving the taxpayers and the students. We’re working through the process now to determine the facts so we can act to ensure that we meet the expectations for the college and this community. We are retaining an outside, independent professional who will conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations presented to the board. That specific person has not been selected yet."

After his words, the GCCC employees and community members broke into applause and the meeting adjourned.

Hitz said three names of possible candidates were mentioned in the meeting, but the board had not decided on any particular person.

Grisell said he would start the search as soon as Thursday. He said the board was looking for a professional with a background in education law 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.

“We’re not reaching any conclusion or working towards any end at this point. We just want to know what the facts are and what the truth is,” Grisell said.

Community members showed support for the board’s decision. Douglass and Atkinson said they believed it was a good first step. Community member and wife of longtime GCCC faculty member Terry Lee, Carol Lee felt similarly, saying she was glad the board chose to seek a third party to investigate the claims. She said in her opinion the investigator should be an attorney versed in Title VII and IX and harassment, and have no ties to anyone involved in the college’s crossfire.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.