Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Honoring the Past to Create the Future

The start of a new academic year always comes with a sense of great anticipation for me. This year’s MVCC Fall Convocation included a profound connection with our past, as we welcomed the return of MVCC’s first faculty member, Dr. Steve Eskow. I was fortunate to spend time with Steve and his wife, Sarah, prior to the program and the magic of those interactions has inspired a renewed sense of commitment for me, along with an unrelenting focus on the importance of, and manner by which, we deliver our work.

My time with the Eskows began Saturday night when I picked them up at the Syracuse Airport. What started like an ordinary scene from daily life in Central New York (a tight connection through Chicago, no time for a meal, and “your luggage will be on the next flight”, etc.) ended up as one of those dialogue-rich clips from a movie like “My Dinner with Andre.” After a full day of travel, and local dining options at 10:30 on a Saturday night being what they are around the Airport, they graciously accepted my offer to take them to the Fayetteville Service Plaza McDonald’s. Our conversation moved quickly from introductions and luggage to the future of education as we know it; their former company – the Electronic College Network (Steve and Sarah were into online education before there was online); the evolution of online and hybrid education; and, having recently returned from one of their many trips to Ghana, West Africa, the power of leveraging technology with service learning through international experiences. The conversation was so engaging and unexpected (I was expecting more “…back in ’46 we used to…”) it took me nearly an hour to finish my Wildberry Smoothie.

On Sunday, I picked them up from the hotel and provided a tour of Utica and our Utica Campus. It was a pleasure to collate all the information I’ve gained on various buildings, businesses, organizations and historical artifacts of this area – particularly the changes that occurred in the 20th Century. We continued our conversation from the night before regarding trends in education and new models that need to be explored in our global society. Steve would often ask pointed questions about organizational change, limitations, and frustrations with delivery structures of our current educational model. He asked other questions that peeled back layers of assumptions that many of us (and I’m including myself in this statement), carry around every day. Throughout the day he also shared stories about his first days at MVCC. He expected to get into educational theory and inspire his students… then realized that the most pressing need was to assemble the desks by the first day of class. He also retold early conversations with colleagues at MVCC, each knowing they were part of something special at this new institution.

I was reminded of a few simple truths from our time together. They include:
- Never stop learning,
- Never stop looking for new ways of doing things and improving what you do for a living.
- The fact that sixty four years after starting his career this remarkable man continues to publish articles that push current educational models toward new ways of thinking clearly sets the bar high for us all.
- Remind ourselves daily about the importance of working at the community college - this community college in particular!
- The stories he told of working at MVCC in the early days, starting from scratch with nothing more than a general sense of mission, amplified the importance of what we do here, and how we do it, today.
- Teamwork and collegiality are important building blocks for success; if there is a problem, everyone owns it on behalf of the college and has a role to play in the solution.

These two principles were present at the founding MVCC. A team atmosphere and “we’re in this together” feel of the stories Dr. Eskow shared about the early days, made me think how easy it is for mature organizations like MVCC to hold themselves hostage to barriers and less than perfect processes and systems because, “that’s the way it’s been and I can only do my job.” We need to remember that excellence is founded on tradition, not mired in it.

When he took the stage at Convocation, I was more than thrilled to see him there before faculty and staff. What started from a brief conversation on this blog (he sent me an email after MVCC was featured in the New York Times) culminated in a standing ovation as he left the stage. As Dr. Eskow said, “a community college must continually change with the communities they serve.” Ours is changing in more ways than we can know. For us to continually change, we must adhere to these timeless messages from our first faculty member and our first dean of instruction, professor and dean emeritus, Dr. Seymour (Steve) Eskow. If you have any thoughts or comments on this blog, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.