DOWAGIAC — 2018 was an eventful year at Southwestern Michigan College. The faculty formed a union, the college sued a state agency and former college dean Elaine Foster was elected to the board of trustees. Work also continued on the nursing building expansion, and new programs and partnerships were established.
For much of the year critics questioned current and past board and administration actions, such as the lawsuit against the Office of Auditor General regarding retirement benefits for part-time student workers. Critics also took aim at he salary/benefit package paid to SMC President David Mathews.
SMC disputed the OAG audit report released in 2017 showing that the college had failed to make contributions into the state’s teacher retirement pension system for its part-time student workers. The dispute escalated in 2018 with the college suing the OAG. That lawsuit is still pending in the Michigan Court of Appeals.
The SMC dispute over student worker pension contributions sparked a statewide debate and a change in state law to clarify that community colleges won’t have to make student worker pension contributions in the future. A state report completed after the legislation showed that SMC and other colleges owed money for past contributions not made.
Former SMC dean Tom Buszek raised questions about college operations during the year. He ran for the board with Foster but was not elected. However, he sees Foster’s election to the board as “the first step in passionate and intelligent community members independently stepping forward to be elected to the board and removing the 54 years of family control,” he said. “SMC has endured.”
As for the union effort, faculty members first talked of unionizing in the fall of 2017 after an unpopular decision to lengthen the fall semester, followed by news of Mathews’ generous salary and benefits. A majority of the faculty voted to unionize in late January, and the Faculty Association union is now in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the college.
Union President Jeffrey Dennis said he thinks the formation of the union has actually improved conditions on campus, as has Foster’s election of Foster to the SMC board. “I sincerely believe that SMC’s future will be bright,” he said.
“As 2018 draws to a close, I do believe that conditions on our campus are in the process of improvement,” he said. “The Faculty Association has afforded a much needed collective voice with campus administration, while the election of Dr. Foster is anticipated to help amplify the Board’s appreciation for SMC’s professional educators and staff.”
Mathews also is optimistic about the college’s future, albeit for different reasons. He noted that the $9.6 million addition to the nursing building is nearly done, new programs and partnerships have been established, and the college continues to operate with a balanced budget.
Among the new programs and partnerships, he said SMC has established seven new business pathways with Indiana University South Bend, new education associates and bachelor’s degree pathways with Ferris State University, and the just-announced new paralegal program to start in the fall of 2019.