Deep concerns or the usual grumbling?


DOWAGIAC — A survey of Southwestern Michigan College staff this fall reveals employees concerned about divisions among staff and administrators, faculty unionization and enrollment declines.

The survey results were revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request from Cass County resident Taras Lyssenko. Lyssenko has been critical of SMC over the past year and questioned actions by the administration and board of trustees.

Lyssenko said he requested the “SWOT” survey results after hearing from faculty members about the concerns they submitted. SWOT stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats” and that analysis is often used in long-range strategic planning.

“A number of faculty and administration people complained to me that they had answered the survey, but then saw how the college president tried to portray the results,” he said, refering to President David Mathews. “So they contacted me. How he tried to summarize the results was nothing like their responses.

“This vindicates everything I’ve been saying. David Mathews has been the college president for 18 years and the same basic board has been there for countless years, and nothing has been done but the creation of a very hostile workplace, which is not conducive to higher education.”

He said the statements made in the SWOT survey demonstrate that the administration’s and board’s “lack of leadership abilities” to manage an institution of higher education.

Information Lyssenko received from his FOIA request covers nearly 29 pages and summarizes the responses of 122 SMC employees in four areas. The survey was sent out to 315 employees.

Mathews said the SWOT survey is one of SMC’s strengths. He said staff and administrators have met several times to review the survey data and make plans.

“Of course, there were some employees who were critical of the college, the administration, their peers, or myself,” Mathews said. “With 315 surveys sent out, one would expect both positive and negative feedback.

“It is not surprising that survey respondents showed a strong unanimity that the strengths of SMC are our people, our facilities, the culture of providing help and care to students, and the quality of SMC’s academic offerings. Lots of opportunities were identified, with the largest one being that of growing enrollments.”

He said the survey showed a consensus that “the recent discord over the past year was the biggest negative that needed to be addressed. This internal negativity is a problem, it is true. It is also true that honestly assessing problems is the first step in solving them. That’s what we’re doing.”

Respondents listed several items in the strengths and opportunities categories, such as the college’s affordability, the campus buildings and grounds, the dedication of faculty and staff, student housing, the nursing program and the quality of classes.

Respondents said the college should do more to reach the surrounding community and school districts, offer more programs for nontraditional students and do more to present a positive image of the college.

Weaknesses and threats listed included lack of input from all stakeholders when making decisions, lack of accountability and transparency, poor communication between administration and staff and between departments, low faculty pay, declining enrollment, inconsistent marketing efforts and the fighting over the union.

“It often feels like SMC is imploding from within,” one respondent said. “There is a lot of discord and disconnect between departments.”

Another person spoke of the “highly combative and toxic environment” and blamed some members of the union for making it “very uncomfortable” to work together. Still another spoke of the “palpable sense of nepotism” at the college with positions created or changed to benefit family or friends of college administrators.

Some spoke against Mathews and SMC board members, questioning their lack of leadership and their decision to sue the Office of Auditor General over student worker retirement contributions. Others blamed college critics, including the Citizens Concerned About Southwestern Michigan College Facebook page for the college’s problems.

Faculty union President Jeffrey Dennis declined to comment on survey findings and said SWOT results should not be made public.

“SMC faculty do not support the release of this internal survey to the general public,” he wrote in a statement. “The administration acted in good faith in gathering this data, and as a matter of conscience the association stands firmly with them in opposing its external distribution.”