JCCC president made candid remarks about his student body. They ended up on Twitter

Johnson County Community College President Joe Sopcich has found himself under scrutiny after his candid comments about his student body were overheard and live-tweeted during breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

Chris Reeves, a Democratic National Committee member from Overland Park, was sitting nearby at a Marriott Marquis restaurant and posted in real time excerpts of a conversation he says he was overhearing between Sopcich and JCCC board trustee Angeliina Lawson on Feb. 13.

“(again, literally three tables over, talking loud enough everyone here can hear) ‘No one who got to JCCC Struggles,’” read one of Reeves’ tweets about Sopcich. “Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC..I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.”

Students and alumni who were unnerved by the tweets are expected to speak out at Thursday’s JCCC Board of Trustees meeting, the first such meeting since the tweets were posted. The meeting is at 5 p.m. in the college’s General Education Building.

Reeves, who was in Washington to attend DNC Poverty Council events, told The Star this week that he had been eating breakfast at a table near Sopcich and Lawson, who were attending a national summit for community college leaders.

He said he started listening, and ultimately recording, when the pair began a heated discussion about JCCC’s recent decision to increase tuition by $1 per credit hour. He shared a short audio clip with The Star in which Sopcich makes the comment about students with “pretty nice cars.”

Reeves said he did not wish to share more clips because his recording captured private conversations of those sitting around him.

In another tweet, Reeves quoted Sopcich telling Lawson, “I think it is hilarious you think anyone cares about a $1 increase. Hilarious. I challenge you to find anyone who is going to stand with people who are opposed to this.”

A college spokesman said Wednesday that the conversation was a “spirited dialogue” about tuition increases and that Reeves’ tweets lacked “relevant context to the conversation with Trustee Lawson.”

“This one-sided attack on Dr. Sopcich and his character is unfortunate when you look at the long list of student-centered decisions that have been accomplished under his leadership,” spokesman Chris Gray said in an email to The Star.

But the exchange prompted dismayed and disappointed reactions from students, faculty and alumni, particularly after Lawson confirmed the veracity of the conversation to the media and faculty.

A JCCC Faculty Association email sent to educators last week said Sopcich addressed the controversy at a campus meeting, saying his words were taken out of context.

“He did not dispute any of Mr. Reeves factual content when asked if he wished to do so,” the email read.

While Faculty Association leaders advised members not to “form hasty judgments based on incomplete info from social media,” they also disavowed “the sentiments expressed” in Reeves’ tweets.

“We witness the challenges our students face every day, we admire their determination, and are disappointed at the thought that such sentiments are held by any employee of JCCC,” faculty leaders wrote.

In December, the JCCC Board of Trustees’ had approved the $1 tuition increase for the 2019-20 year. The change, which Lawson and trustee Lee Cross opposed, brings tuition up to $94 a credit hour for Johnson County residents. The tuition rate for other in-state students increases $2 to $112 per credit hour and $3 for out-of-state students to $223 per credit hour.

Proponents pointed out that the uptick was the first increase in tuition or fees in three years, and that it would prevent larger increases in the event of a recession.

College data from this school year show that JCCC has the third-lowest tuition rate and mandatory fees compared to 18 other Kansas community colleges, even after the increase.

But the decision seemed to fly in the face of some student leaders who had asked the college to keep tuition the same to support students striving to pay for gas, school supplies and other needs. And other critics said the increase was ill-timed because the board had already voted to lower the tax burden on Johnson County property owners who had seen property values shoot up in recent years — effectively returning extra funds the college could have collected through mill levies.

Lawson said her opposition to the tuition increase had inspired the discussion with Sopcich.

“I was explaining to (Sopcich) my vote in December,” Lawson told student journalists at JCCC this week. “His reaction came from my explanation. It sounded like him needing to tell me, ‘this is why it had to happen this way’ and for me to basically get over it.”

While some found Sopcich’s comments to be problematic for a college president hired to serve a diverse student body, others worry whether the public airing of a private, incomplete conversation creates a dangerous precedent.

Some question Reeves’ motives in sharing the tweets. Gray told The Star that Reeves’ ties to Lawson are not lost on college administrators: Reeves donated $8,370 to Lawson’s trustee campaign in 2017.

Tiger Harris-Webster, Student Senate president, said in the Campus Ledger that he had “mixed feelings” about the tweets, and thought the out-of-context information could put the college in a “dangerous place.”

Even Reeves said he had received accusations that the situation was a political setup, a claim he said would have been impossible for him to orchestrate. He confirmed to The Star that he has been a public supporter of Lawson and said he shares the viewpoint that it is “ridiculous to ask kids to come up with money and hand money back to property owners at the same time.”

He said he hoped his tweets sparked a serious discussion about college issues and Sopcich’s words so that “people can hear it, view it, think about it.”

As for the idea that he had taken Sopcich’s words out of context?

“My only thing is it’s really hard to take something like, ‘I walk through the parking lot there’s lots of nice cars’ out of context,” he said. “What other context can you put that in?”

Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.