Ousted ODEI director calls out GRRC for ‘removing’ her from website

Equity and Inclusion Leadership Nominee B. Afeni McNeely Cobham during her Community Forum presentation on October 1, 2018 at Grand Rapids Community College. (Tatiana Diaz/The Collegiate Church)

By Blace Carpenter

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 2:32 p.m. Nov. 12 to add a full comment from a GRCC faculty member that was omitted from an earlier version of the story.

Less than two weeks after B. Afeni McNeely Cobham was placed on administrative leave from her position as Director of Equity and Inclusion and Executive Director of the Woodrick Center for Equity and Inclusion at Grand Rapids Community College, she sent an email to the GRCC Board of Directors. Administrators on November 6 detailing the events leading up to his removal.

McNeely Cobham wrote: “… I was placed on administrative leave (October 25) without knowing the alleged reasons and without being informed that the Acting President of the GRCC was terminating me effective December 30, apparently under the “without cause” provision of my contract… “

When asked to comment on McNeely Cobham’s removal from office, GRCC Acting Chairman Juan Olivarez, GRCC General Counsel Brett Meyer, and GRCC Board Chairman David Koetje , all declined to comment.

Speaking on behalf of Olivarez, communications director Dave Murray wrote in a message to The Collegiate: “Dr. McNeely Cobham is currently on administrative leave. It would be inappropriate for me to discuss a personnel matter.

Although the main administrators do not discuss what led to McNeely Cobham’s administrative leave and the impending termination of her contract, in her email she noted the tension between her and Olivarez during the planning of the annual Giant Rewards an event. As director of ODEIher job description says she is the coordinator of the 39-year-old ceremony that recognizes black leaders who have helped shape the history, culture and well-being of Grand Rapids.

The event, normally held in February in coordination with Black History Month, had been halted for two years due to COVID. McNeely Cobham and two ODEI employees began planning the event in late July to relaunch the event in early October. McNeely Cobham had served as both APSS (Alliance of Professional Support Staff) for the unit and CEOO (Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer). McNeely Cobham reported that the workload became stressful for her and the ODEI team. She sent a detailed note to Olivarez explaining the work needed to plan the event and suggested more community involvement in the planning. McNeely Cobham’s communication with the GRCC Board also included documentation of concerns raised by the Giant Awards Selection Committee.

“In the six weeks leading up to my placement on administrative leave (September 12 to October 25), I spent a lot of time with the Acting President engaged in a philosophical debate about the fact that members of the award committee GIANT are playing an active role in bringing this giant event to fruition,” McNeely Cobham wrote in his email to the board.

After McNeely Cobham was placed on administrative leave, she was told she was no longer going to lead the ODEI. “…I learned that the coordination of the GIANT Awards has been transferred from ODEI to the Office of Advancement, which has three times the staff and additional support through the Communications Department and the web team.”

Days after being placed on administrative leave, McNeely Cobham said the GRCC “deleted all things related to my existence at the institution on the college website.” This included his name removed from the presidential search committee and executive leadership lists. His name was recently reinstated on the search committee list. The search committee completed the work of selecting three presidential finalists before McNeely Cobham was ousted.

McNeely Cobham noticed and documented that search results for his name appearing on the GRCC.edu website dropped from 117 to 59 shortly after his removal.

“The Communications department has a long-standing practice of asking department heads to provide a quote for media press releases on events/programs or new initiatives,” she wrote in her email. from November 6 to the council. “Over the past week, citations I have provided for events dating back to 2019 have been removed from the GRCC website and, in several cases, from the GRCC social media channels (i.e. Facebook, IG, LinkedIn, Twitter).

The Collegiate reviewed the number of searches and found that search numbers for his name fluctuated throughout the day on November 10 and 11. Search results for McNeely Cobham went from 59 results to 13 on November 10, and returned to 57 search results on November 11.

On November 12, McNeely Cobham shared the explanation he had been given for the removal of his information from the GRCC website in an email to The Collegiate. “According to the General Counsel of the GRCC, Dr. Olivarez instructed an employee to remove my biography and photo from the ODEI webpage. The assignment was assigned to an employee in the marketing department. The staff member understood that the instruction meant that all information about me should be removed from the GRCC website.When I raised my concerns via my email of November 6, the General Counsel was unaware of deletion of the content and requested that the information be restored.

The Collegiate contacted Meyer, general counsel for the GRCC, for a response.

Meyer could not be reached, but Murray, the GRCC’s director of communications, responded and declined to explain why references to McNeely Cobham and his work were removed and later restored to the GRCC website and refused to allow recording of the conversation.

“All I can answer here is to confirm that she remains on administrative leave and because it is a personnel matter it would be inappropriate to say so,” Murray said.

The ODEI has been placed under new leadership. David Selmon, the associate dean of academic outreach, has been named acting director of ODEI.

McNeely Cobham detailed her workload and how it affected ODEI during her tenure as director.

“A core function of my duties as CEOO is to ‘lead the development and improvement of policies and processes related to equity and inclusion,'” McNeely Cobham said in his email. two years, I watched, experienced, and heard staff talk about the track record of community projects (like the GIANT awards).In response, I began to advocate for broad institutional resources AND autonomy to change the way the “ODEI supports these community programs. I have used my expertise in project management, organizational realignment and policy development to correct a serious injustice related to workload imbalance.

According to her, this attempt to realign the workload has been met with constant resistance from Olivarezwho originally served as chairman of the GRCC from 1999 to 2008 and was brought back into service until the end of the year in the absence of Bill Pink, who recently left college to become chairman of Ferris State University.

In her email to the board, McNeely Cobham shared links to emails between herself and Olivarez to explain her insistence on bi-weekly meetings to help ease any workload imbalances. Although she stated a problem with the workload as a whole, Olivarez sent her emails aimed at helping her “prioritize” her responsibilities over the Giant awards show.

In an Oct. 17 email, Olivarez asked McNeely Cobham to give her assistant access to her calendar to schedule those meetings.

“Also, immediately, please give…full access to your calendar so she can hold bi-weekly meetings until December. These meetings are important as we move forward,” Olivarez wrote.

Some GRCC staff have come forward to comment on McNeely Cobham’s employment status, while others have reflected on his accomplishments and commitment to fostering diversity.

Photo courtesy of B. Afeni McNeely Cobham.

“She is a colleague who has gone beyond just photo ops and the appearance of change,” Oscar Neal, a math professor at GRCC, wrote in a message to The Collegiate. “Forcing our community to think critically about equity and inclusion in diversity…His level of prioritizing equity and inclusion to bring about real change through policies and procedures has disrupted the status quo culture of the institution, which made some people particularly uncomfortable. I consider her to be a true engineer and pioneer in the GRCC, she is one of the few who wants to put the inclusion and equity of others before personal gain.”

GRCC Professors’ Association President and Head of the Psychology Department, Frank Conner, said: ‘The times I have contacted her she has been able to give me helpful advice on diversity issues in the classroom,” Conner said. “She was very helpful on a one-on-one basis.”

McNeely Cobham ended his email to the GRCC Board of Trustees by saying, “I am concerned that cleaning up the website will provide the interim president and potentially other members of the college leadership with the opportunity to claim wrongly that my work at the GRCC and in the community was ineffective and that the role of a DEI staff member on the leadership team is unnecessary,” McNeely Cobham wrote.

“I implore you not to allow this narrative to rewrite the history of the GRCC,” she continued. “They can remove data from a website, but they can never erase its impact.”

Shane Madden, editor, contributed to this report

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 2:32 p.m. Nov. 12 to add a full comment from a GRCC faculty member that was omitted from an earlier version of the story.

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