Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 2:32 p.m. on Nov. 12 to add in a full comment from a GRCC faculty member that was left out in an earlier version of the story.
By Blace Carpenter
Less than two weeks after B. Afeni McNeely Cobham was placed under administrative leave from her position as Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer 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 Trustees on Nov. 6 detailing the events that lead to her removal.
McNeely Cobham wrote, “… I was placed on administrative leave (Oct. 25) without being told the alleged reasons and being given notice that GRCC’s Interim President was terminating me effective Dec. 30, apparently under the ‘without cause’ provision of my contract…”
When asked to comment on McNeely Cobham’s removal from her job, GRCC Interim President Juan Olivarez, GRCC General Counsel Brett Meyer, and GRCC Board of Trustees Chairperson 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 on administrative leave at this time. It would be inappropriate for me to discuss a personnel matter.”
While top administrators aren’t talking about what led to McNeely Cobham’s administrative leave and her impending contract termination, in her email she noted the tension between her and Olivarez during the planning of the annual Giant Awards event. As director of ODEI, it is listed within her job description that she is a coordinator of the 39-year-old ceremony which recognizes black leaders that 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 on a two-year hiatus due to COVID. McNeely Cobham and two ODEI employees started planning the event in late July to reboot the event in early October. McNeely Cobham had been serving as both APSS (Alliance of Professional Support Staff) for the unit and CEIO (Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer). McNeely Cobham reported that the workload became stressful for her and the ODEI team. She sent a detailed memo to Olivarez explaining the work that was needed to plan the event and suggested more community involvement with the planning. McNeely Cobham’s communication with the GRCC board also included documentation of concerns raised by the Giant Awards selection committee.
“During the six weeks leading up to my placement on administrative leave (Sept. 12 to Oct. 25), I spent a great deal of time with the interim president engaged in a philosophical debate about GIANT Award committee members taking a substantially active role in bringing this behemoth event to fruition,” McNeely Cobham wrote in her email to the board.
After McNeely Cobham was put on administrative leave, she was told that she was no longer going to be leading ODEI. “…I learned that coordination of the GIANT Awards was transferred from ODEI to the Office of Advancement, which has three times the staff and additional support through the Communications Department and Web Team.”
Days after she was put on administrative leave, McNeely Cobham stated that GRCC “scrubbed all things related to my existence at the institution from the college website.” This included her name being removed from the presidential search committee and executive leadership lists. Her name has recently been restored on the search committee list. The search committee completed work selecting three presidential finalists prior to McNeely Cobham’s ousting.
McNeely Cobham noticed and documented that search results of her name appearing on the GRCC.edu website dropped from 117 to 59 shortly following her removal.
“The Communications Department has a longstanding practice of asking department leaders to provide a quote for media press releases about events/programs or new initiatives,” she wrote in her Nov. 6 email to the board. “In the last week, the quotes I provided for events dating back to 2019 have been removed from the GRCC website and, in several instances, from GRCC social media channels (i.e., Facebook, IG, LinkedIn, Twitter).
The Collegiate looked into the search counts and found the search numbers for her name fluctuated throughout the day on Nov. 10 and 11. Search results for McNeely Cobham went from 59 results to 13, on Nov. 10, and back to 57 search results on Nov. 11.
On Nov. 12, McNeely Cobham shared the explanation that she was given for her information being removed from the GRCC website in an email to The Collegiate. “According to GRCC’S General Counsel, Dr. Olivarez instructed an employee to remove my bio and photo from the ODEI web page. The assignment was given to an employee in the marketing department. The staff member took the instruction to mean that all information about me should be removed from the GRCC website. When I raised concerns via my Nov. 6 email, General Counsel was unaware of the content being removed and asked that the information be restored.”
The Collegiate reached out to Meyer, GRCC General Counsel, for a response.
Meyer could not be reached, but Murray, GRCC’s communications director, responded and declined to explain why references to McNeely Cobham and her work were removed and then restored on the GRCC website and declined to allow the conversation to be recorded.
“All I can respond to here is to confirm that she remains on administrative leave and because it is a personnel matter, it would be inappropriate to say,” Murray said.
The ODEI has been put under new leadership. David Selmon, the associate dean of academic outreach, has been appointed as Interim Director of the ODEI.
McNeely Cobham detailed her workload and how it had affected the ODEI during her time as director.
“An essential function of my job duties as the CEIO is to “lead the development and improvement of policies and processes related to equity and inclusion,” McNeely Cobham stated in her email. “For two years, I observed, experienced, and heard from staff about the toll of community-based projects (like the GIANT awards). In response, I began to advocate for broad institutional resources AND the autonomy to shift the way ODEI supports these community programs. I used my expertise in project management, organizational realignment, and policy development to correct a grave injustice to workload imbalance.”
According to her, this attempt at a workload realignment was met with consistent resistance from Olivarez, who originally served as President of GRCC from 1999 to 2008 and was brought back to serve through the end of the year in the absence of Bill Pink, who recently left the college to become the President at Ferris State University.
In her email to the Board of Trustees, McNeely Cobham shared links to emails between her and Olivarez to explain his insistence on bi-weekly meetings to help mitigate any workload imbalance. Despite her stating an issue with the workload as a whole, Olivarez sent her emails focused on helping her to “prioritize” her responsibilities in relation to the Giant award ceremony.
In an Oct. 17 email, Olivarez asked McNeely Cobham to give his assistant access to her calendar to schedule these meetings.
“Also, immediately, please give… full access to your calendar so she can set up bi-weekly meetings through December. These meetings are important as we move forward,” wrote Olivarez.
Some GRCC staffers stepped forward to comment on McNeely Cobham’s employment status, while others reflected on her accomplishments and commitment to driving diversity.
“She is a colleague that pushed past simple photo ops and the appearance of change,” wrote Oscar Neal, a GRCC math professor, in a message to The Collegiate. “Forcing our community to think critically about diversity equity and inclusion… Her level of prioritizing equity and inclusion to make true change through policy and procedures was a disruptor to the status quo culture of the institution, which made some people notably uncomfortable. I regard her as a true engineer and pioneer at GRCC, she is one of the few who is willing to put the inclusion and equity of others ahead of personal gain.’’
GRCC Faculty Association President and Psychology Department Head Frank Conner, said “The times that I have reached out to her she has been able to give me useful advice around issues about diversity in the classroom,” Conner said. “She’s been very helpful on an individual basis.”
McNeely Cobham finished her email to the GRCC Board with, “I am concerned that scrubbing the website provides the interim President and potentially other members of college leadership an opportunity to make the false claim that my work at GRCC and in the community was ineffective and that the role of a DEI staff member on the executive leadership team is unnecessary,” McNeely Cobham wrote.
“I implore you not to allow this narrative to rewrite GRCC’s history,” she continued. “They can delete data from a website, but they can never erase the impact.”
Shane Madden, Editor-in-Chief, contributed to this report