JCCC president responds to tweets: I ‘stand behind my years of work and service’

A week after controversial comments made by Johnson County Community College President Joe Sopcich were posted on Twitter, he called on the public to judge him by his years of service to the community.

On Thursday, at the first public Board of Trustees meeting since Democratic National Committee member Chris Reeves live-tweeted excerpts of a conversation between Sopcich and college trustee Angeliina Lawson during breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel, Sopcich called the posts an attack on both his decisions and his character.

“This posting has the effect of making a statement of intended hyperbole sound like a statement of belief,” Sopcich said.

Reeves, of Overland Park, posted the quotes to Twitter on Feb. 13, when, he told The Star, he overheard and recorded a loud and at times heated discussion between Sopcich and Lawson about the recent approval of tuition increases at the college.

Reeves, sitting nearby, was at the hotel for a Democratic National Committee meeting, and Sopcich and Lawson were in town for college business.

“No one who goes to JCCC Struggles,” read one of Reeves’ tweets of Sopcich’s purported comments. “Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC..I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.”

Reeves, who has donated to Lawson’s trustee campaign, also posted comments in which Sopcich purportedly said it was “hilarious” that anyone would oppose the tuition hike and that “there are no poor students” at JCCC.

Lawson had opposed the increase of $1 per credit hour, saying it was unfair when the board had already voted to lower the tax burden on Johnson County property owners.

But the majority of the board said the small increase was reasonable for a college with the third lowest tuition rate in the state and would protect against larger increases in case of a recession. The tuition increase to $94 a credit hour for Johnson County residents passed 5-2.

In his statement Thursday, Sopcich confirmed that the Washington conversation did occur. But he did not apologize for his words or speak to the veracity of specific statements. He said he supported and recognized the “diverse population we serve” and listed several current and future initiatives to help needy students, including $1 million a year in scholarships, the expansion of the college’s food pantry and a new program to help students with transportation needs.

“I’ve spent the better part of my adult life helping those I am now seen as minimizing,” said Sopcich, citing his experience working with social service agencies and leading the college’s foundation. “In this regard, I am absolutely willing to stand behind my years of work and service.”

Others who spoke at the meeting defended Sopcich’s record.

Former adjunct faculty member Joseph Scarlett, of Overland Park, called the tweets “tantamount to a peephole in the ladies dressing room at JC Penney.”

Former trustee Jon Stewart called “releasing partial soundbites ‘deplorable’” and said “painting (Sopcich) as a person who does not care about those in need is not accurate.”

But the posts troubled JCCC faculty and staff who felt the negative attention undermined the efforts and needs of both students and staff.

Faculty Senate President Bill McFarlane read a statement offering support for students facing challenges “both personally and financially.” He said faculty members will announce plans for a special session with students on how best to support their needs.

Faculty Association President Melanie Harvey asked the trustees and administrators to “exercise restraint in communication.”

“If you are saying things in anger or arguing that reflect poorly on our college and they get picked up, those are also things that we don’t want out there. Because it does damage to our college reputation,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to take seriously when someone speaks about the needs of students if our public record has comments to the contrary.”

She also said the recorded comments indicated a “lack of understanding about our student population” and asked administrators to collect specific data, including how many students work full time or part time, are single parents or face housing insecurity or homelessness.

“I do wish you would have apologized for saying those things out loud,” she said to Sopcich before asking trustees and administrators to be careful with their communications.

She’d be reminded of her own words a few minutes later by trustee Greg Musil, who pointed to her use of the words “train wreck” when she described a frustrating and contentious faculty contract negotiation.

Such words are “saying something you can’t take back,” Musil admonished her before advocating the opposite — that the JCCC community “not be so careful” in their discussions with one another.

He would be the only board member to address Sopcich’s comments.

“What has come out of the comments this week is a failure to have robust conversations on this campus,” Musil said. “Because now everybody on this board, and everybody in this administration and everybody out here including faculty I’ve heard from are afraid to say certain things, are afraid to use any rhetorical devices like hyperbole that we all learned about when we took rhetoric or composition or speech.

“Because if somebody lifts one comment out of that, it makes me look like I don’t care about students.”

Update: In a statement released Friday, trustee Lee Cross called Sopcich’s comments “disappointing on a number of levels.”

“The statements (if true) are demeaning to students,” his statement read in part, “and these disclosures, the lack of denial and public apology is concerning.”

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