Mat Johnson former College President – Hazel Lias is not a Liar

But Thank You for Saying it So Your Supporters Can Show their Character on Whether they Continue to Support You

Written by John Face

February 17, 2022

On Wednesday February 16 Mat Johnson sent an email out to individuals at Albion College. His 4-page long rant (posted below) has made its way to the internet and now, as he most likely wants, is causing a stir in Albion.

In his email he makes fantastical claims about the millions he is responsible for while artfully stating without saying it was all him. The fact is Mat, Maurie Ditzler was responsible directly for many of the claim’s you make in this email. Claiming responsibility for bringing in millions of fundraiser pledges, money pledged while Ditzler was here, shows the depth you will go to make yourself look good. Especially since those pledges were made long before your very short tenure here.

I wanted to just write and write about all the inaccurate statements. I wanted to remind all my readers that when reading this the author of the email is a highly educated man who appears to be desperate because his actions were stopped because people fought back against his tyranny.

I highlighted the line a sentence down where he implies Hazel Lias must be stupid because, according to him, members of this secret group who worked against him “manipulated her” to tell the story of how he went after her. Ms. Lias has never been manipulated by anyone Mat and this one statement alone shows how little you knew about people in our community and again, how low you will go to change the truth to make yourself look good and save your career.

For the record I did not change anything in the following email except that I changed to bold print where he says Ms. Lias was manipulated.

Dear Friends,
By now you have probably heard that I resigned the presidency of Albion College. You may have also recently heard that the Chair of the Board, Michael Harrington has resigned his position as Chair and as a member of the Board. After some time to reflect, I am writing to you to set the record straight and to begin sharing my story. Sharing my story is part of the healing process for me and my family, and we hope by sharing it others, like the college president’s who have reached out because they are facing similar campaigns, will find something useful in it.

I am grateful to so many of you who have offered words of support and encouragement. I am also grateful to those of you who have encouraged critical self reflection in this moment. I have thought much about the tensions between a perspective that asks if we tried to do “too much, too fast”, and a competing perspective that sees clearly the urgency of racialized attacks on students, racialized educational outcomes, unfair housing, substandards schools serving primarily Black children, inadequate healthcare and effective municipal services in the face of a pandemic, and a dearth of economic opportunity in the Black community. The resistance we faced was and remains embedded in racialized, gendered, socioeconomic, and other social dimensions worth examining. Thanks to each and every one
of you.

I did not resign because of anything I did at the college or in the community. To the contrary I am proud of what we accomplished under incredibly difficult circumstances. Albion College is now poised to emerge as an innovator and national leader in the increasingly competitive small liberal arts college marketplace. This is because we executed on the priorities the Board of Trustees and I shared in common:

  1. A new commitment to business modernization and innovation to address the longstanding structural deficit,
    declining market competitiveness, and stagnant wages.
  2. A commitment to anti-racist transformation necessary to serve the most economically, racially, ethnically
    diverse student body attending a top 100 small liberal arts college. Albion had recently transformed the
    student body to be more than 42% domestic Students of Color.
  3. A symbiotic relationship that sustained a thriving City and College.

We made very significant progress on these priorities in part because of the courage and strength of the Board of Trustees. I regularly shared with presidential colleagues across the country that I felt incredibly fortunate to have the courageous Board I had as we moved swiftly ahead. I am confident the Board has the tools needed to move this agenda and that we were able to lay a robust foundation and chart a clear path forward in my time as President.

We significantly increased the financial health of the College. By following a disciplined and principled approach to strategic change we were able to meet budget projections for the first time in 12 years; move the institution from near financial paralysis to a BBB+ bond rating from Standard and Poors; realize a significant reduction in annual debt cost; eliminating debt related covenants on the endowment; and access >$9m for new capital investment. Our careful and direct analysis yielded an overall reduction in operational cost while providing the largest faculty raise pool in the college’s history and providing significant increases in compensation for over 18% of the staff workforce. Our efforts to increase financial resources completed a $100m capital campaign early and over the goal, and raised an additional $20m after the close of the campaign and during the pandemic including $13m in honor of the inauguration.

We significantly increased the facilities stewardship and investment in the campus. By developing a
Comprehensive Infrastructure Plan we set priorities and began a once-in-a-generation level investment in campus including a >$2m investment in technology infrastructure; rehabilitation and recovery of the historic but derelict buildings including St. John’s Parish to become a new Alumni Unity Hall, the former Huntington Bank to become the Center for Community, and the Washington Gardner School to become the Body and Soul Center; transformation of the Stockwell and Seely-Mudd Library complex into a leading edge active learning hub for the Cutler Center for Student Success, an integrated one-stop-shop campus helpdesk; major investments in athletic facilities supporting existing athletics and new wrestling and e-sports programs; and investments in the look and feel of campus to retire a significant portion of the deferred maintenance that had accumulated. Over the next several years major investments will be made in new residential facilities and in the renovation of existing residential facilities through the new funding made available through the successful bond refinancing. Over the next several years, Albion will build on the significant energy savings that we accomplished through our strategic movement toward green technology and sustainable management practices. This investment and turn towards sustainability will allow Albion to emerge as a leading small college in facilities innovation.

We built new and successful approaches to recruitment, retention, and success of our most significant asset, students. Through the $8m investment in the creation of the Cutler Center for Student Success, through new investments in marketing and communications including a new web presence, through cultivation of a new “students first” approach to campus planning and resource allocation, and through new resources devoted to integrated wellness and cultivating student leadership, we created a more focused approach to providing students with the resources and the experiences they want and need to be successful. On the academic side we introduced more new academic programs than had been introduced in any similar prior period over the last two decades including programs in data science, public health, and a Master’s degree in accountancy and a post-baccalaureate pre-medical certificate.

We founded the School for Public Purpose and Professional Advancement to provide an integrated and robust home for experiential learning and founded the Curtis Institute for Race and Belonging to sit alongside the existing institutes on public policy, medicine, and business. This new school, together with the Curtis Institute and the newly created Community Collaborative set the stage for Albion to become a shining example of how to live the liberal arts.

We turned toward and leaned into the hard work of becoming an anti-racist institution. Beginning with my first public statement as President-Elect in which I called upon the campus to “Become Boldly Anti-racist,” I charted a path toward unwaivering examination and action to move the institution toward becoming the anti-racist. It needed to do so to succeed in the new diverse reality of liberal arts education. We listened deeply to faculty, staff, students, and community members from historically underrepresented backgrounds and identified sets of policies that needed to be changed to eliminate barriers that reflected white privilege and created inequitable outcomes that reinforced subtle notions of white supremacy embedded in all social institutions in our country by virtual of our shared national

We ended inequitable access to resources that was encoded in the institutional bureaucracy. We significantly shifted the diversity of the College administration including moving the Cabinet to the most diverse mix of life exereince in the College’s history (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), and introduced new policies and programs to diversify the faculty over the next five years. We instituted a campus change program called the Blueprint for Belonging that charged every office with developing its own public plan for how they will change their approach to their respective institutional contributions so as to maximize their contributions to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And we created the first Cabinet-Level Chief Belonging Officer, a bias reporting system, and a bias response team.

We turned toward excluded segments of the local population and built partnerships to address the urgent needs in the community including equitable schooling, healthcare, and citizen oversight in the use of public funds and the approval of local economic and community development efforts. We launched an on-campus NAACP Chapter, invested in historic Holland Park, partnered with the Marshall Public Schools to advocate for a new elementary school serving largely Black families and to work towards a workforce development strategy to redevelop the former highschool. I am incredibly proud of all of this progress, even more so as we did it while managing the continued on-campus residential liberal arts education Albion is known for in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This level of change, even in non-COVID time, even when the necessity for change is existential, is incredibly challenging for any organization. The changes we needed to make cut at the fabric of a social system that afforded a small group of people privilege, power, resources, and control over the Community and to a large degree the College. Because the policy changes were grounded in the principles of equity, accountability, and proven best practice, it was untenable for that small group to oppose them publicly. So, they carried out a 12+ month campaign to smear me personally and attack members of the College administration and Board of Trustees. As we introduced new policies, new organizational realities, new approaches that centered equity and inclusion and strengthened the
College’s financial and organizational health, a small group of individuals launched a plan from the shadows of anonymous social media to kill change. In the context of extremely limited social interaction created by COVID measures, the virtual campaign to spread lies and promote false narrative took root and spread like wildfire.

I am also proud of the work I have led to develop the Carnegie Elective Classification in Community Engagement and associated projects over the past several years. Among the many accomplishments of the team working on these projects included partnering with colleagues and institutions in Australia and Canada to pilot and develop nationally relevant versions of the classification; working with colleagues at the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University to develop a new elective classification in Leadership for Public Purpose; and planning for new elective classifications in Sustainability and in Racial Equity. I am particularly grateful for the partnership with Dr. John Saltmarsh, Dr. Matthew Hartley, Georgina Manok, George Luc, Verity Firth, Dr. Joanne Curry, Matthew Grant, the members of the National Advisory Committee, and so many others who supported the expansion and development of the elective classifications.

I was excited to have the Foundation announce that the Basic Classification would also be located at Albion College as part of a new Commission led by Dr. Marisol Morales. As I stepped down from the presidency of the College to assume the presidency of the Commission, the smear campaign turned toward the Foundation and, with assistance of a few key individuals, was able to create the idea that the Foundation was facing reputational risk to such an extent that the Foundation decided on a different direction. I remain hopeful that Dr. Morales and the team will be able to remain part of the leadership moving ahead and grateful that ACE has agreed to host the classifications providing stability.

In the post-Trump world, saying things loud enough, often enough, to enough people, no matter how untrue or outlandish, can create a false narrative that can have real and dangerous impact. This small group banded together to paint each policy and organizational change as indicative of a character flaw. A generous voluntary early retirement program for faculty was twisted into a plot to undermine shared governance by eliminating faculty with the most experience; attempts to bring more control to campus vehicle access to protect Black students from drive-by racial assaults got twisted into an attempted take-over of the City; a unit-based business review process that led to the elimination of some staff positions and the creation of new upskilled positions, got twisted into a story about capricious retributive firing of people; reorienting the College toward an ethic of transparency in community relations and toward the needs of the Black community got twisted into the College, and me, being portrayed as bullies in the community; a plan to thin the library collection through retirement of circulating volumes became the President throwing books in the trash; and many many others. While each individual accusation is
ludacris on its face and in light of true facts, the volume and intensity of the campaign began to create a reality in perception.

From the shadows, the group painted me as a caricature of an unethical leader who was out of touch with the people of the town, with students, and with faculty. They mobilized the most vile remnants of overt racism among some community members and some alumni. They strategically targeted Board members with false information and created fraudulent surveys of the community and of the faculty. They accused me of running a sex trafficking operation out of the President’s home, of harboring goats at the home against city ordinances, of starting a construction company owned by me to personally profit on the investments in campus, of disrespecting and assaulting an elder of the Black community at a basketball game, of bankrupting the College, and of many many other things that are entirely, provably, false. Most importantly, their campaign stoked fear in the community that anyone could be attacked in similar fashion.

Words have consequences. They mobilize our better angels or the most vile and violent spirits among us.

In the end, I resigned because that strategy had made the environment unsafe for my family and others, and endangered the College as it headed into the closing of the refinancing bond and the reaffirmation of accreditation processes. Those responsible for the campaign manipulated a member of the community into making allegations against me that have now been proven to be false. Nevertheless, the allegations became a clarion call used by the campaign to target me and my family. When it became clear that the College and my family were in danger I decided to leave the role of the College President to protect them both. We faced threats of violence against me and my family that required the college to hire private security to protect us. The need for such protection was born out in the threatening slow drive-by of tinted vehicles, drone footage of my home and family, and ongoing false reports to
Campus Safety of criminal behavior taking place at my home. That may sound extreme. But it is the truth.

Some of those most deeply involved in initiating the most significant changes have now left or are in the process of leaving the College for similar reasons. Others have been positioned well and empowered by the College to continue the work in the face of the ongoing campaign of resistance. I am confident in the rightness of the College direction and the leadership of those remaining behind to bring it to fruition provided they can overcome the campaign. This story is not unique. It is playing itself out across our country against government leaders, school boards, principals and superintendents, library directors, and other college presidents. January 6th, 2020 and its aftermath have marked perhaps the most highly visible and openly hostile attack, but Governor Whitmer and the Michigan legislature faced armed invaders prior to that day and other leaders are facing openly hostile inflammatory and racist attacks across the country daily. The attempts to delegitimize through slander, libel, public character assasination, and ultimately intimidation, are a powerful new strategy in the social media age and lead to exactly the types of
violence we saw on January 6th and threats of the same that led the College to hire personal security to protect my family.

I feel compelled to push back on the smear campaign and set the record straight with truth and facts. In the coming days, weeks, months and beyond I will do whatever I can to fight this kind of campaign. If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch.

Mathew Johnson

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