Accusations Fly Against Albion College President

Students, alumni and employees are circulating a petition calling for Mathew Johnson’s removal. College officials say their allegations are based on misinformation.

September 22, 2021
 
Courtesy of Albion College
Mathew Johnson became president of Albion in July 2020.

Hundreds of Albion College students, alumni and current and former employees are calling for the president’s removal.

Mathew Johnson, who became president of the Michigan liberal arts college in July 2020, has been “bullying staff and students to get his way,” according to a petition, which as of Tuesday evening had garnered more than 1,770 signatures. The petition throws a host of accusations at Johnson, including allegations that he profited from campus construction projects, hired nonwhite employees only because of their skin color and kept two goats on campus against city law.

“The people of Albion College and the surrounding Albion community deserve better than this, we deserve better than him,” reads the petition, which was filed anonymously. “Mathew Johnson needs to face consequences for his actions and be removed from office.”

College officials pushed back against all the accusations, arguing that the petition is riddled with misinformation.

“While we always listen to, value and take feedback into strong consideration, it is also our responsibility to provide our campus community with complete and accurate information,” Susie Pentelow, Albion’s executive director of communications and marketing, wrote in an email.

It’s not unusual for students and employees who are unhappy with a college president to push for their removal. In the past couple of years, similar calls have sprung up at Saint Xavier University, Monmouth College, George Washington University and Haskell Indian Nations University.

What stands out about the petition at Albion College is the range of allegations lobbed at Johnson, both in the petition and in the comments people post with their signatures. Instead of rallying around one or two central issues, signatories have piled on. The complaints range from allegations of racism to concerns about limited student parking.

Dissatisfaction with Johnson’s leadership began in August 2020, when the college required that all students download an app called Aura, which tracked their whereabouts, Luke Seaman, a junior history major at Albion who signed the petition, said in an email. The app managed the college’s COVID-19 testing and public health response, and it shared a student’s location with administrators if the student tested positive for COVID-19 or left campus, Johnson told MLive.

“While many gave Johnson the benefit of the doubt due to him being a new hire during a global pandemic, many were upset with how the school handled the COVID situation, claiming that the app was an invasion of privacy,” Seaman wrote.

Complaints against the new president have poured in since.

The petition accuses Johnson of failing to address multiple incidents of racism and hate on campus. College officials deny this and point to a bias-reporting system that was implemented under Johnson. After receiving several reports of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in residence halls, the college identified the perpetrator and removed them from campus.

The petition also accuses Johnson of hiring several nonwhite employees strictly on the basis of race to boost the diversity profile of the college. Once again, college officials pushed back against that and other allegations in an FAQ document sent to students last week. “While the college has made intentional decisions to diversify its faculty and staff, all searches completed at the college are conducted in order to find the most qualified candidate for the role,” it read.

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Seaman, a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity, said he and others feel that members of campus Greek life have been unfairly targeted by the administration. Johnson proposed last spring to build a communal living space on campus to replace the old fraternity houses. After the fraternities all said they preferred to stay in the old houses, Johnson announced a house renovation plan that required members to give up rooms, according to Seaman.

“Our house specifically was supposed to be at full capacity this semester, but the school has made us give up rooms for the renovations,” Seaman wrote. “These renovations have yet to even break ground and no one on our Sigma Nu executive board has been told what the renovations will consist of.”

College officials tell a different story. A standing agreement between the college and fraternities require the fraternities to pay for all beds -- even if they’re empty -- or surrender them to the college.

“The College recently began the process of needed renovation of floors with empty rooms in the buildings in which the fraternities are located after the fraternities opted not to pay for the empty spaces,” Pentelow wrote. “Since these buildings have an abundance of unused spaces, the College has partitioned some of this space to support ongoing renovations and create more residential accommodations for students outside of the fraternities.”

As for the goats, Johnson donated two goats -- Clancy and Duff -- to the college as therapy animals, Pentelow wrote. The animals were also part of a pilot study to see if they could control invasive species on campus. After college officials performed a cost-benefit analysis, the two goats were relocated to a local petting zoo. 

Michael Harrington, chairman of the Albion College Board of Trustees, stuck up for Johnson in a statement Tuesday.

“Without a doubt, this has been an incredibly challenging 18-plus months as we -- as a society -- have navigated so many unprecedented issues, from the pandemic to the emergence of an urgent national conversation about racial justice. Albion’s leadership team has made tough decisions, and those decisions have not been popular with everyone, which is to be expected,” Harrington wrote. “However, every decision made has been with the greater good of Albion College and the surrounding community as the paramount focus. We, the Board of Trustees, stand behind President Johnson and the College’s approach.”

So far, the biggest action students have taken against the president is the petition for his removal, said Bryan Smith, a sophomore psychology major at Albion. Some students have met with Johnson privately to discuss their concerns but left those meetings dissatisfied, according to Smith.

“Each one of my friends that have talked to him privately have all had the same result of no action,” Smith wrote in an email.

Even though the college has addressed the allegations in the petition directly with students and pointed out several pieces of false information, the calls for Johnson’s removal have continued. Smith, Seaman and other petitioners said they feel Johnson has been difficult to talk to, and they wish for more direct communication from the president rather than mass emails and statements from other college officials.

“President Johnson does not make students feel welcome on campus,” Seaman wrote. “The rare times that he is seen on campus many students, including myself, feel uncomfortable in his presence.”

Responding to a question about whether the college will address student frustrations with the president’s communication style, Pentelow highlighted Johnson’s campus involvement.

“Dr. Johnson invites direct communication from students and has ensured all know they are welcome to contact him directly via email or schedule time to meet with him in person,” Pentelow said. “In addition to being available for in-bound student communication, Dr. Johnson is extremely active in in-person initiatives on campus.”

Regardless of the outcome of their petition, Smith is concerned about morale on campus.

“We’re all worried our best four years may become a very shitty four years due to the president,” Smith wrote. “We do not see Albion College heading toward a good future.”

(This story has been updated with additional details.)

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