By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON TOWNSHIP — Jennifer Spielvogel is out as president for Lake Michigan College.
Three months after taking office, LMC’s Board of Trustees terminated Spielvogel’s contract following a nearly two-hour just cause hearing Thursday morning. Trustees cited policy violations, improper conduct, improper management behavior, a lack of professionalism, providing inadequate goals and incurring $20,625 in unauthorized costs charged to LMC.
The hearing was in the Hanson Theatre at LMC’s Mendel Center to accommodate the more than 100 people in attendance. Seated at a table facing the board with a camera focused on her, Spielvogel remained mostly quiet – occasionally speaking in asides with her lawyer.
Among the board’s main concerns was Spielvogel’s behavior, which board Chairwoman Mary Jo Tomasini said created a hostile work environment. An investigation conducted after Spielvogel’s first two months in office, which included looking over expense documents and interviewing colleagues who had issued complaints on her job performance.
According to witness statements collected at the April 8 special meeting that led to Spielvogel’s suspension, LMC’s president allegedly made defamatory comments regarding board members, community members, college officers and employees. Tomasini said Spielvogel admitted to making inappropriate comments when asked by the board and LMC’s lawyer.
Tomasini said Spielvogel engaged in behavior that could have placed LMC in jeopardy of lawsuits and she intentionally created a hostile environment by altering an employee’s job duties to make her to quit. Spielvogel also related a plan to force another employee to quit or retire, Tomasini said.
“We did not lose anybody, but they were not in good shape,” Tomasini said after the hearing. “They were polishing up their resumes.”
Spielvogel and her lawyer, Bradley Glazier, were given the stage after opening comments from Tomasini. Glazier said the hearing was a farce because neither he or Spielvogel could cross-examine the witnesses that trustees spoke to during the April meeting.
Both Glazier and Spielvogel said their argument was unnecessary because the board had already made its decision.
“Only 17 days after I started as president, members of the board and cabinet began keeping notes on my actions and my words,” Spielvogel said during the hearing. “It is still unknown to me who the architect of the undercover work was. Perhaps she or they will one day have the courage to show themselves and offer an explanation.”
Spielvogel added: “I was not given the chance to correct or refute the list of misstatements and non-truths that were created. The notes were twisted to look like (just) cause.”
Spielvogel, who became president Jan. 1, said the board tried to usurp her from office after she allegedly discovered LMC was out of compliance with regulations with the U.S. Department of Education – the federal agency that regulates financial aid for students. Spielvogel said she told Tomasini about the non-compliance issue prior to a March 22 board meeting.
“As a new leader, I thought the best course of action was to address these issues,” she said. “Apparently, it was not in my best interest to pursue corrective action because soon after I told the board chair about the issues, the board’s attorney solicited those notes from members of my cabinet and the board to use as justification of my termination.”
Tomasini said she had no recollection of speaking with Spielvogel about any financial aid compliance issue before the meeting.
“I recall a lot of things about that meeting, but not that. This morning was the first time myself and the board heard there’s any trouble with financial aid,” Tomasini said. “We had hired consultants to advise us and to see what our process looks like. But we haven’t gotten the results of any report and no concerns have been brought to the board yet.”
LMC on Thursday night issued a statement saying it can’t speak directly to Spielvogel’s allegations until it gets more specifics.
LMC said it reviewed the last 15 years of single audit reports and found they are in accordance with accounting principles and there are no instances of noncompliance.
‘Time to mend’
There have been no conversations about hiring an interim president. Administrative responsibilities will fall on the cabinet and trustees until a new president is selected.
“It allows us to move forward and heal the damage that was done over the last 90 days,” Tomasini said. “The good news is it was only 90 days. We have a team that has been wounded by her leadership. It’s time to mend that.”
Before the board unanimously voted for Spielvogel’s dismissal, Trustee Stephen Small asked other board members if the damage was beyond repair between the president and other administrators.
“My concern is with a remedy. Whether this presidency is salvageable or not, people have been hurt,” Small said. “The relationship between the president and the board has been poisoned. My question is can we get Humpty Dumpty back together again?”
A second motion was later made to commence action seeking reimbursement from Spielvogel for the $20,625 in unapproved expenses she incurred. Among the documented expenses, the board alleged she was planning a large inauguration, renovations to the president’s office and bought a chain of office medallion. The board first became concerned when reviewing expense requests for Spielvogel.
The board scheduled a 3 p.m. meeting for May 16 to determine its next steps in handling Spielvogel’s termination. Spielvogel is now off the LMC payroll as college officials say the college is fully insured to cover any potential forthcoming legal expenses.
Glazier said his client’s next step is to take the board’s decision to the Court of Claims, where Spielvogel can argue for payment for her contract that ends June 30, 2018. LMC officials have stipulated before that if the college should terminate Spielvogel for just cause, then the institution is under no obligation to award severance compensation or continue any fringe benefits provided by her contract.