Trans firing may cause Lansing Community College to sever partnership with Spring Arbor

By Todd A. Heywood

EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd A. Heywood is a former Trustee of Lansing Community College and is currently suing the college Board of Trustees in Ingham County Circuit Court for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act.

LANSING - A lucrative partnership between Lansing Community College and the embattled Spring Arbor University may be in jeopardy due to SAU's recent firing of a transgender employee.

LCC officials confirm the state's third largest community college is considering ending a proposed partnership between the two organizations because of SAU's recent firing of Julie Marie Nemecek, who is transgendered, and a series of repressive policies, including an antigay policy.

The proposed partnership would have allowed SAU to offer classes and degrees at a new multimillion dollar building at LCC's downtown campus. The new building, dubbed the University Center, is paid for with state dollars and matching funds from a recent millage passed by LCC district voters.

"It is fair to say the College is considering not going forth with the draft contract," says LCC spokesperson Tess Brown.

SAU was one of eight universities selected through a formal proposal process to be partners with LCC in the University Center. Others include Western Michigan, U of M Flint, and Central Michigan University.

In exchange for advertising, marketing and space, the partners would pay $25,000 in annual fees as well as rental rates for specific uses in the building. The partners would then offer four-year and post-graduate degree studies at LCC, addressing what officials say is a problem with two-year to four-year transfer students's fear of the larger environment of a four-year university.

Questions began swirling shortly after a Jackson newspaper ran the story of Nemecek's contract with Spring Arbor University, which will not be renewed this June because she is transgender.

As first reported last week in BTL, LCC has policies preventing discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression and sexual orientation. An investigation by BTL now reveals that SAU is not only dismissing Nemecek for being transgender, which the university contends is not "Christianâ" but also uncovered written anti-gay policies.

Spring Arbor's Student Handbook, available on the university's web site, has a code of conduct for the "Christian Community," which includes the following statement:

"4. All students regardless of age, residency or status are required to abstain from cohabitation, any involvement in pre-marital, extramarital and same gender sexual relationships."

Further in the document the University lists possible punishments for violating the Code of Conduct. For "Immoral Sexual Conductâ" a first offense will result in suspension or dismissal from the university, a second offense will result in dismissal. A first offense for possessing pornography or sexual harassment could result in just probabtion.

"I find it ironic you can look three times," says Sean Kosofsky, director of policy at Triangle Foundation, "but you can only touch twice."

It is unclear if SAU would remove a student for stating he or she was homosexual. SAU refused to return numerous phone calls and emails on this matter.

Lansing City Attorney Brigham Smith says the SAU policy is a "conceivable" violation of the city of Lansing's newly minted Human Rights Ordinance, and says anyone who has been a student at the current SAU extension site could have standing to ask the city to act against SAU on the matter.

"The city could regulate that conduct in the city," Smith told BTL in a phone interview.

Smith also says the act of firing Nemecek for being transgender would be a violation, and if Nemecek ever worked in the Lansing office, she could have standing to file a complaint.

Whether LCC would be in violation of the ordinance is a more complicated legal question, Smith says. But he is concerned that it would indeed be a violation, and says he is prepared if a case is brought, to look at it.

LCC is not waiting around for that to happen though.

Dr. Judith Cardenas, president of LCC, told BTL in an exclusive interview on this matter, that she is concerned about the situation. A letter sent to Trustees last week says she has asked for a legal opinion as to whether or not SAU violated the terms of the proposal, which include adherence to LCC's equal opportunity and nondiscrimination policies.

"We are doing our due diligence on this," she says. "So that if we have to end this relationship, we can. And I will make that recommendation if it is necessary, that's my job as president."

Cardenas says the questions the actions of SAU have brought forward are important. "We are using this situation as an opportunity to have a conversation with all the partners on this issue, as well as many more. The attention on this matter has merely sped up the timeline for that dialogue."

She said that on Friday she called SAU Vice President Dr Betty Overton Atkins about this situation, but received a troubling response. "She acted very surprised at our concern and told me she had not received any calls from other partners about the situation. She didn't understand the difference (between LCC and other partners) reactions."

Based on that conversation, Cardenas says, the college is awaiting the outcome of an EEOC arbitration meeting between Nemecek and SAU on March 6 before making any final determinations.

But Cardenas is clear the partners who will eventually use LCC's building are more than just tenants. "The collaboration level has to be different. They are touching the lives of our students on our campus. They have to create a more inclusive environment."

"I am concerned that we appear not to be committed to our policies," says Cardenas. "But I want to be clear that we are committed to those policies and will not do anything that will interfere with the dignity or respect of our students."

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