Albion College president Mathew Johnson resigns, will lead new group affiliated with school

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Albion College President Mathew Johnson resigned from his position at the small Calhoun County college after about 18 months on the job, the school's Board of Trustees announced Wednesday. He will instead lead a new organization affiliated with the college.

Trustee Joseph Calvaruso will serve as interim president as the board hires a firm to conduct a search for Johnson's replacement, the board said. His resignation was effective Friday.

In announcing his departure, trustees lauded Johnson's work, including opening a school to expand professional learning opportunities, launching a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative and restructuring university finances. 

Albion College President Mathew Johnson stands in his office in Albion on July 23, 2021. Johnson resigned from his position at the small Calhoun County college after about 18 months on the job, the school's Board of Trustees announced Wednesday. He will instead lead a new organization affiliated with the college.

"He inherited no playbook for how to navigate a global pandemic, yet his decisive actions and strong leadership enabled us to provide an exceptional residential experience at a time when many institutions were entirely remote and others were closing," board Chair Michael Harrington said. 

Albion required students to be tested for COVID-19 and quarantine when they arrived on campus in the fall 2020, and students were not able to leave campus after they arrived. It was the first college in Michigan to announce a campus-wide vaccine mandate this year.

"Though incredibly challenging, I have loved my time serving Albion and successfully leading the College through the pandemic and strengthening our financial position,” Johnson said in the release. 

Albion, a private, nonprofit college, has 1,506 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Johnson came under fire this fall from students, faculty and staff who accused him of ignoring the needs of students of color and bullying students and staff members, according to a petition calling for his removal that garnered more than 2,000 signatures. The anonymous petition writer also said Johnson implied to non-White employees he hired them because of their race. 

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The petition writer also criticized Johnson for bringing a pair of goats on campus in violation of city ordinances. The college newspaper, The Albion Pleiad, reported the goats were introduced as therapy animals in the spring of 2021, but university officials later decided to use them to control invasive species because city ordinance states the goats could not be kept on campus. The goats were sent to a petting zoo in August.

The petition also claims Johnson hired a construction company he has ties to for "unnecessary jobs on Albion's campus." 

Johnson referred a request to comment to spokeswoman Mary Ann Sabo.

Albion College formed a construction company, WG Construction Services LLC, last year to address the "significant shortage of labor" in the regional construction industry. The construction firm does some work for the college and will take on outside clients, the college says on its website

WG Construction Services is registered at 501 East Michigan Ave. in Albion, which city property records show is a university-owned building. As president, Johnson served as its registered agent in state business filings, Sabo said. The college owns the construction firm.

Johnson referred a request to comment to Sabo.

Albion trustees signaled their "full and continuing support" for Johnson on Oct. 21, when they passed a resolution of support describing his accomplishments.

They credited him with achieving "significant academic, financial and community achievements" during a pandemic, including launching new programs at the college and partnering with community groups to encourage economic development in the surrounding city.

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In the resolution, trustees acknowledged the challenge Johnson had in connecting with stakeholders during his first year and asked him to present them with "a comprehensive plan to address specific concerns, invest in relationship building and develop new channels for communication."

They also alluded to the criticism Johnson has received. They condemned his opponents and claimed they are spreading misinformation and lobbing "sustained and unwarranted accusations" against Johnson, college leadership and trustees. 

Johnson was hired as president in the spring of 2020 with a start date of July 1.

Johnson will become president of the Commission for Public Purpose in Higher Education, an organization the college announced in November it would be launching. 

Albion also announced in November it will operate Carnegie Classifications, which classifies accredited colleges and universities into categories based on their degree offerings and level of research activities, starting next spring. Carnegie Classifications is affiliated with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a New Jersey policy and research center founded by Andrew Carnegie.

The Commission for Public Purpose in Higher Education is an extension of Carnegie Classifications designed to "engage in initiatives that explore the public purpose of higher education through collaboration," the announcement states. 

Johnson worked for the Carnegie Foundation before he was hired at Albion, according to his LinkedIn page. 

"This new role will allow me to focus full time on the work I love of strengthening the public purpose of higher education institutions at the national and international level and to build on the lessons learned in the work we have done at Albion," Johnson said in the release announcing his departure.

Sabo declined to provide a copy of Johnson's contract or release his salary. Johnson's predecessor, former President Mauri Ditzler, earned $386,048 in 2019, according to the college's latest IRS 990 filing. Ditzler retired last year.

ckthompson@detroitnews.com