On Saturday afternoon, Mathew Johnson was inaugurated the 17th president of Albion College. This comes over a year since Johnson began his presidential duties in July 2020.
Johnson’s inauguration was originally going to be held on May 7, but was postponed following a rise in COVID-19 cases in Michigan.
The ceremony was held in person on the steps of Kresge Gymnasium and livestreamed onto the college’s YouTube account. Community member speakers included Dr. James Curtis (’44) and Wesley Dick, professor of history, emeritus. Other speakers included former colleagues of Johnson, Donald P. Levy and Maud S. Mandel, as well as Andrea Brimmer, Ally Financial chief marketing and public relations officer, and Ashley Woodson, founding dean of the School of Public Purpose.
The weekend of inauguration festivities included other celebrations for the school, including the dedication of the School for Public Purpose and Professional Advancement and groundbreaking at the former Washington Gardner School for the renovation to become the Body and Soul Center.
“It has been an honor to serve Albion’s students, faculty, staff, alumni and community this past year and guide the college through an extremely difficult period,” said Johnson, via email. “I’m thrilled to finally have had an official inauguration, as well as having celebrated the groundbreaking of the new Body and Soul Center at Washington Gardner.”
Johnson’s inauguration schedule also incorporated events in the surrounding Albion community, such as a place in the parade that launched the annual Festival of the Forks in downtown Albion. This scheduling made the most sense according to Johnson.
“An Inauguration signals the beginning of something new, and what better way to kick off another great school year than with a weekend of events that foster community and true belonging–on our campus and in our city,” said Johnson, via email.
According to Johnson, he did not see the inauguration event as primarily a celebration of the college’s new president. Instead, he sees it as a time to celebrate Albion College and project a hopeful vision for the future.
“It is a ritual that brings students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members together to deepen their connection to the college and it is a time to raise the profile of this institution that we all love,” said Johnson, via email. “To that end, being able to celebrate in person was an important step.”
The in-person ceremony and related festivities came a day after the latest Together Safely COVID-19 update, which revealed there were 35 active positive COVID-19 cases on campus. Despite this, the inauguration activities presented little risk to the community, according to Johnson.
“The decision to hold an in-person inauguration ceremony was not made lightly,” said Johnson, via email. “After consulting with campus leadership and the Calhoun County Public Health Department (CCPHD), we determined that a physically distanced, outdoor ceremony, alongside a series of small, masked and physically distanced indoor events, brought little to no risk, particularly given our community’s high vaccine rate.”
Johnson’s inauguration also comes with controversy as a petition calling for Johnson’s removal gained traction in the days before his inauguration. The petition had reached nearly 1,300 signatures by Sept. 16, the Thursday before his inauguration, according to MLive. It is now at over 1,800 signatures.
The petition, claimed to be created by an “anonymous student,” alleges Johnson should be removed from office. Some of the accusations made about Johnson within the petition include that he has ignored the harassment of people of color (POC) on campus following anti-Black racist incidents around and on campus in April, bullied fraternity members into a new campus living arrangement and utilized a construction company he is the principal of to do “unnecessary jobs on Albion’s campus.”
“The people of Albion College and the surrounding Albion community deserve better than this, we deserve better than him,” the petition said. “Mathew Johnson needs to face consequences for his actions and be removed from office.”
Many comments left by signers affirmed the sentiment made by the petition. Some expanded on their reasons for signing beyond what is included in the petition description while many identified themselves as current students or alumni.
A campus-wide communication was sent out on Sept. 16 by Student Development with a document responding to the allegations made in the petition. The communication included “details of the inaccuracies” and corrected “several pieces of misinformation in the petition,” according to Johnson.
“While we always listen to, value and take feedback into strong consideration, it is also the responsibility of our leadership team to provide our campus community with complete and accurate information,” said Johnson, via email. “I’m always happy to address concerns directly, and this instance is no different. I encourage students to reach out to me or any member of our campus leadership team with questions.”
Despite the accusations made towards Johnson, he says that every decision is made with the greater good of Albion in mind.
“In the last 18 months, Albion’s leadership team has made tough decisions, and those decisions have not been popular with everyone, which is to be expected,” said Johnson, via email. “That said, there are some who are opposed to the changes that we have made. Some of those people are choosing to go outside the norms of respectful, honorable, accountable debate over differences and instead spread misinformation that erodes trust and creates conflict.”
Johnson says he believes open dialogue to be a better way to host debates and raise opposition. This comes in addition to the open sessions created with the intent of engaging students, faculty and staff.
“As our campus begins this new chapter, I’m looking forward to working toward the goals of the College, uniting our student body, taking on new challenges together, pushing the boundaries of a liberal arts curriculum, fostering more community relationships and establishing Albion College as a place of belonging for all,” said Johnson, via email.