Monday, March 22, 2021

Living in the Upside Down: Reflecting on a Year of COVID

We all have those moments when we remember exactly where we were when something significant happened.

I added Wednesday, March 11, 2020, to my personal list when I was sitting in the back row at the County Board of Legislators and County Executive Picente pointed to me and said, “The Governor just closed you.”

I remember wondering what that even meant. I know we close for snowstorms or power outages, but a virus? I called the office and the College’s Crisis Response Team (CRT) was already assembling. The next week was filled with all-day CRT meetings trying to make sense of it all, each day culminating with an email update for our students, faculty, and staff. It was mentally draining to slog through so much unknown territory only to count the day’s primary accomplishment as a single email to the College community.

By Monday, March 23, the entire College was operating remotely with a few exceptions of essential staff. The CRT met all day every day for several weeks then had daily check-ins through mid-July in an effort to develop the details for creating a COVID-friendly operation filled with density reduction, 80% remote instruction, residence life protocols, centralized health-screening check-in stations, bracelets, door monitoring, testing, and other details that did not exist prior to the disruption.

Everything was new. Setting up home offices, spending all day in front of Zoom squares, and having the normal rhythm of daily life turned upside down was unsettling to say the least. 

One of my most vivid memories of the early COVID lockdown was driving to the Newark, N.J., airport with my wife to pick up our oldest daughter as she caught the last flight out of Togo, West Africa, when her Peace Corps experience came to a sudden end. We drove on a dark and desolate five-lane highway at 10 p.m. with the NYC skyline on the horizon and not a single car in sight — a post-apocalyptic feel that I’ll never forget. Watching the nightly news and reading headlines trying to understand what was going on was mentally exhausting. Playing trivia games with friends via Zoom on the weekends helped ease the discomfort, but simply wasn’t the same.

The College’s Workplace by Facebook platform helped maintain some connection with the “Social Distancing Together” thread filled with random artifacts of working remotely — new coworkers and “officemates” of cute kids and funny animals and precious “throwback” pictures that we likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise. “Virtual happy hours” and different departmental strategies to stay connected despite the remoteness helped keep folks together. A virtual graduation ceremony was an emotional moment for me to consider the impact of what our students were going through and just how powerful our work is here at the College.

Summer was like living in parentheses — it was normal in a sense because of outdoor activities, but it wasn’t because there were no gatherings of any kind. At home, the relaxed pace provided an opportunity to inventory the upsides, like having both of our girls home with us and spending bonus time together, having our health, and having our jobs as we watched the devastating impact of the pandemic around the country. 

As August came and the College began a new academic year, all the anniversaries of our normally robust fall semester were hard to emotionally navigate. The absence of gathering at Fall Opening, new student orientation, sunny fall afternoons with vibrant campuses, soccer games and meaningful student activities made it that much harder to push through as the pandemic continued. The holiday-spike in positive cases and deaths were a sad development that quickly gave way to a return of 1% positivity rates and the optimism of the vaccines arriving.

I now find myself in a “COVID-normal” state of mind that provides a manageable routine without getting too anxious about things. I continue to be amazed at the dedication and commitment of faculty and staff that has been demonstrated over the past year. It’s as though the respect and trust I hoped we had developed in the culture here was amplified in ways that exceeded my expectations. That seems to be how we’ve made it through together — believing in each other and holding ourselves accountable to do what needed to be done.

And now it’s hard not to look to the future. What will it look like? If 2020 was the year of the upside down — full of shock and awe — 2021 is likely more a year of transition to something different, rather than a return to pre-COVID life. While we’ll likely have a “masked normal” for an extended period of time, I believe things will change dramatically when the social-distancing guidelines are fully lifted. Until that happens, we’ll continue managing within the parameters we have with an eye toward carrying out our mission in the best way possible — striving to do our best work while being patient with each other and ourselves … and the world as we know it.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Staying Tethered in the Workplace – Personal Guideposts

While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended most every aspect of life for all of us, I have been thinking a great deal about one situation in particular — college students getting ready to secure their first career-related full-time job.

Many may be interviewing and onboarding via videoconference, starting their work remotely, missing out on the informal cultural cues they would have gotten under the old normal circumstances. Thinking about the world of work in the current context has also made me reflect on the core principles I’ve embraced throughout my career that guide me to this day. I share them here with the hope that they might be helpful to new college graduates starting out, as well as individuals further along in their careers who can compare and contrast them with their own guiding principles for success.

You Can Never Get Lost on the High Road

Roughly 20 years ago a colleague of mine (who was 20 years my elder) and I found ourselves in a difficult situation with no clear solution. Our only options were choices that neither of us wanted to make. After much discussion, he said, “Well, Randy — I always say, you can’t get lost on the high road.” And with that, our choice became very clear. Since then, I repeat this phrase whenever I am faced with a difficult decision. People often speak of integrity as something you must constantly nurture and never want to lose. This phrase helps keep integrity intact.

Under-promise and Over-deliver

Building your personal brand is more important than ever these days and having dependability at the core of your reputation is a great asset. I learned early on that making a habit of under-promising and over-delivering goes a long way to building your personal brand. I started my career in institutional research, which had me constantly responding to requests for data. Managing expectations is critical, so I’d always ask for a deadline on the request. If they said Wednesday, I’d ask if Friday was okay. More often than not, they’d say “sure” or “whenever.” I’d tell them they’d have it by Friday. When I gave it to them on Wednesday, they were surprised and very thankful. Under-promising and over-delivering whenever possible infuses positive energy into the workplace and strengthens interpersonal relationships with others.

Add Value Wherever You Can

I played a lot of sports growing up, and my parents always reinforced the notion that it wasn’t about me and my individual performance, but rather about the overall team effort and my individual contribution to the larger outcome. I was just happy to be on the field or court, adding value wherever I could. The same applies to the workplace. We all have our assigned jobs, but no task should be beneath anyone. I still take notes in small group discussions and pick up wind-blown trash as I walk across campus — whatever it takes — because I’m part of a team and just happy to be in the game. It’s about having a “give first without expecting anything in return” mentality that somehow pays dividends beyond whatever you give. I’ve kept this notion top of mind throughout my career and have found it to be a differentiator.

Listen More Than You Speak

Politicians, philosophers, and celebrities have all been quoted referencing the fact that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. A related sentiment from these often-quoted individuals is how no one can learn anything when they are the one talking. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to do. However, if you can apply it — particularly early in your career — you will accelerate your learning and influence through the knowledge you gain by simply giving others space to talk. If you focus on the quality of your words rather than the quantity, people will come to value your opinion and contributions.

Avoid the Rumor Mill

One thing that isn’t talked about enough in career advice is the rumor mill. I had a mentor early in my career who quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” Fortunately, she was the kind of supervisor who encouraged me to ask her questions and, rather than feed the rumor mill, would help me reframe and recognize that there are multiple sides to every story and that all organizations are complex. By encouraging me to focus on my own locus of control and what I could influence, I’ve always been able to stay centered on my own work and responsibilities without getting distracted by gossip and rumors. People know who feeds into the rumor mill and it usually works against the reputation of those whose names are always in the mix.

See Yourself as the Hero in Your Own Journey

And finally, embracing Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and applying it to yourself — you are the hero in your own journey — is a concept that I rely on to this day. I liked this brief video so much that I watched the entire short film. While the film is a little quirky, the messages are useful and increased my understanding of how each of us has gifts and potential that, when nurtured through the lens of the hero’s journey, allow us to commit to the challenges before us, helped by mentors and guides that appear along the way to help us secure the success and treasure we all seek.

What are the principles that guide you for your own success?

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Small Bets – Innovating at the Edge

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified many trends that were creating disruption even before 2020 and accelerated elements of our society that brought the future to the present overnight. With enrollment declines and dramatic decreases in state and local government budgets, funding models for public community colleges have become more fragile than ever. Since 2007, the convergence of technologies has fostered the development of new and disruptive educational platforms, and this has only been magnified by the pandemic. Augmented and virtual reality, as well as robotics and artificial intelligence, are developing at rapid rates with tremendous potential to disrupt learning even further. And the ever-widening gap between the “haves and have-nots” in this country has grown to the largest among any of the G7 nations, with the wealth gap between the richest families and the poorest in this country doubling between 1989 and 2016. This has been made even worse by the pandemic — burying our most vulnerable students behind layered and intersecting barriers to advancement.

It’s enough to make one curl up and just hope for survival. It’s overwhelming at times to consider how fast everything is moving amidst such complexity. However, if the idea of making small bets — innovating at the edges of an organization — is embraced, an organization can shrink the change, as Dan Heath suggests. MVCC has been nurturing our organizational culture to continually scan the environment to monitor these macro trends and take bold actions to make small bets that will keep the College well-positioned for the increasingly complex and ever accelerating future. With partners like Jobs For the Future (JFF), the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, and many others, we’re able to identify promising practices and rally the resources to launch minimal viable products (MVPs) and begin iterating our prototypes.

Securing the Financial Future of the Institution

State and local funding combined with student tuition have long been the primary revenue base of community college funding. Grant funding is mostly temporary and is not sustainable, so something more is needed. The MVCC Foundation created a separate Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), Tea Leaf Ventures, to support three social enterprises. If a social enterprise is a commercial venture that supports social good, why not make the College the social good? Tea Leaf Aircraft Exchange, Tea Leaf Manufacturing, and Tea Leaf Touring and Consulting are all in their infancy but hold great promise for new and sustainable revenue for MVCC.

Embracing Disruptive Platforms

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are disrupting the way in which people access content and learn. Coursera enrolls 73 million and edX enrolls 32 million individuals around the world. We are prototyping how to create non-credit to credit-bearing pathways for students to complete this content and apply it to their credit programs. Our computer science faculty created a pathway from the Coursera platform for the Google IT certification curriculum. In addition, we’ve also used the edX platform to deliver a non-credit leadership certification to students in our YouthBuild program at our Educational Outreach Center. As content delivery is changing, so is the transcripting of learning. MVCC recently launched the digital credentialing platform Credly to allow students to post their micro-credential certifications on their personal social media accounts like LinkedIn.

Anticipating Accelerating Technology

Technology is accelerating an incredible rate. Robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and behavioral “nudging” are all technologies of promise to increase student engagement and success. Robots have been the thing of science-fiction but they are increasingly becoming more prevalent in society. While some robots are available at substantial costs, MVCC faculty are working with the Cyberhawks student club to program Misty the Robot, which was purchased with a $2,500 donation. Misty will be available on the Rome Campus in the near future to interact with students.

Our YouthBuild program is implementing immersive learning technology through SkillMill Training through Interplay. We also implemented Persistence Plus this past Fall to connect with students through texting powered by intentional messages of engagement supported by artificial intelligence that is having a positive impact on student retention.

Muting the Impact of the Wealth Gap

Although College-Community-Connection (C3) is an important component in our current holistic student supports, it’s actually a “small bet” early prototype of what may very well scale to be a fundamental component in our future operations if the current national trends of a widening wealth gap between the “haves and have nots” and the growing complexity and stress of daily life continue. Ensuring that our students’ basic needs are met and that they can rely on the College to help make sense of all the learning options that will help them secure a good job or career will become more important over the next decade. C3 has all the makings of what will be needed if these trends continue.

COVID-19 has compromised our students’ ability to build the relationships they need to secure a great job and pursue the career of their choice. Our Career Services department is working with a cohort of about 125 students on a special LinkedIn project that will allow us to test a few things and gradually scale up the ways in which we get our students on the platform to expand their professional networks and build social capital for themselves.

Guided Pathways as Prelude

Guided Pathways is a comprehensive framework to increase equity and student success. Given the magnitude and scale of changes called for in the framework, it’s hard to imagine Guided Pathways would be a small bet. But if the trends of a growing wealth gap, decreasing support of public education requiring new business models, accelerating technology reshaping the student experience, and increased stress and complexity in society, the Guided Pathways framework is a prelude to the types of changes that will be needed 10 and 20 years into the future.

All of these small bets are in motion. Some are more developed than others, but all of them combined signal that MVCC is focused on how the present connects to the future. Making small bets like these positions us to learn with emerging and promising approaches to serving our students better and keeping the College strong and well-positioned in what will likely continue to be a very uncertain future.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

I never thought my worldview could change from simply attending yet another Zoom meeting, but that is what recently happened. Our vibrant and inspiring Muslim Student Association (MSA) presented a program titled, “Hawk Talk: Meet the Muslims of MVCC.” I felt fortunate for the opportunity to hear from a panel of five MVCC faculty members who are Muslim, as they courageously shared their experiences that included comparing living in the United States with their experiences in other countries. The 90 minutes flew by thanks to their stories and the brilliant facilitation of a student leader from the MSA.

Prior to the program, I did a quick refresher to remind myself of the different types of Islam and the difference between Islam (the religion) and Muslim (the people who follow Islam). I clicked the Zoom link, hit my mute button, and got ready to learn.

With each panelist’s story, common themes quickly emerged. Like most religions, Islam is very personal. Despite the panelists sharing very different experiences and stories, they all found a sense of peace that comes from their faith and how Islam’s focus on kindness and doing good deeds makes it more a way of life that blurs the lines between a religion and simply how one lives.

A question was asked about their thoughts on stereotypes about the treatment of women in Islam. All five panelists and the facilitator happened to be women and commented how most stereotypes about oppression are more about gender than religion. They all had very interesting insights that highlighted the difference between religious oppression and cultural oppression. What we see in the U.S. media as oppression due to religious beliefs is often, in reality, a reflection of the culture in those countries or regions — oppression that is disconnected from the religion of Islam. For example, contrary to the perception of most Americans, in many countries Muslim women have the choice of whether or not to wear a head scarf, as the Quran does not prescribe specific garments like burqas, veils, etc., and most Muslim women do not view the hijab as an oppressive garment or something that is forced upon them.

Listening to their stories made me ask the question, “Is the subtle gender bias you experience here in the States more frustrating than the more overt religious bias you experience?” They all said “Yes.” Some went on to point out how the media presents such a myopic, stereotypical view of obedient and oppressed women in Islamic-majority countries and yet, those countries have a history of female leadership and women’s rights with some having elected female prime ministers.

Specifically, in the past several decades, a number of countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Turkey (Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, 1993), Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto (1988-1996), Bangladesh (prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996, 2001-2009) and Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001, 2009-Present), Indonesia (President Megawati Sukarnoputri, 2001), Kosovo (President Atifete Jahjaga, 2011), and Kyrgyzstan (President Roza Otunbayeva, 2010) have been led by women; Mauritius, which has a significant Muslim minority, elected a female Muslim (Ameenah Gurib) as president in 2015. At one stage in the 1990s, over 300 million Muslims — at that time, between one-third and a quarter of the world's entire Islamic population — were simultaneously ruled by women when elected heads of state. In contrast, this country has yet to elect a female president and has yet to ratify an amendment to the U.S. constitution guaranteeing women equal rights under the law (not just leaving it to existing 1972 legislation that could theoretically be overturned by a congressional vote).

My worldview was further expanded when the panelists were asked what they’d like to see changed about Islam. They’d like to see a more complex view of the Prophet Mohammed presented and celebrated. Too often he is associated with war, but he was a strong advocate for human rights of all people — women and slaves included. The panelists said they’d also like to see the media and society celebrate the peaceful focus of Islam along with the tremendous diversity that exists within the religion to break down the short-sighted and simplified stereotypes that are all too common in this country.

With COVID-19, I was anxious about the College being able to continue our legacy of providing such diverse and extensive programming opportunities available to our students, but I’m not as concerned anymore. The pandemic presents a fascinating opportunity for us to seize in this moment. Talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion and engaging in uncomfortable conversations takes effort, intention, and courage. Pre-COVID, I would have had to muster the energy and courage to physically go to a room and sit with my “white-maleness” as a visible minority and risk being exposed for all my ignorance about the topic in a room full of experts with real, lived experiences … that would’ve been pretty uncomfortable for me and most people like me. Thanks to the Zoom delivery format, it only required me to click on a link, hit my mute button, listen, take notes, and think. It was literally so exhilarating to expand my worldview that I couldn’t help but comment in the chat and quickly unmute myself when the opportunity came to ask questions. It was the most comfortable I’ve ever been with being uncomfortable.

I’m grateful for the leadership of our Muslim Student Association, the wonderful student facilitator and the brilliantly courageous panelists for providing our MVCC community with such a meaningful program. I look forward to the MSA’s upcoming programs and I encourage everyone to attend (look for more information to come.):

  • Open Mic Night with Imam Thomas Facchine: Oct. 26, 2020
  • The Humanity of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from a Christian’s Perspective by Dr. Craig Considine of Rice University: Nov. 13, 2020

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mountains, Molehills, and Thriving in Chaos

Monday, September 21, marks six full months since MVCC transitioned to remote operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those have been the longest, most complicated, draining, and unfamiliar 26 weeks, 182 days, and 4,368 hours of my life.

While we’ve been at this a while now, it still seems that at any given moment on any given day, something that normally would have been an isolated molehill can feel like an insurmountable mountain. However, since the start of the fall semester, I’ve noticed more and more people sharing what I would describe as normalizing chaos. I know we all are experiencing the pandemic differently, but there are some common elements that seem to apply to most of us at one point or another. It may be some armchair psychology, but here are a few helpful things I’ve learned from talking to others at the College.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said, or heard someone else say, “Just taking it one day at a time!” The idea of staying in the moment has never seemed so important, and is a key strategy for working through the chaos surrounding us. Wishing for the pandemic to end and for things to go back to our old normal is an easy but incredibly unproductive endeavor. I know when I let my brain go there, it increases my stress and anxiety levels in an instant. Slowing down and focusing on the moment can increase appreciation and gratitude for the moments we do have. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve noticed an increase in people recognizing others at the College; colleagues are expressing appreciation for the efforts of their peers for providing some kind of help or for just doing a great job. While this is wonderful to see in any context, it is especially important now — research has shown that when we practice gratitude in various forms, it makes us healthier and more productive.

I’ve also heard people, in so many words, managing their locus of control — trying to worry only about the things within their control and putting the things they can’t into a more productive context. In other words, if I can’t influence or control it, I’m going to call it what it is, and instead deal with the things that I can control. I’ve seen this result in myself and others who seem to be “making the most” of our current circumstances, and have been surprised at how creative we were at solving a problem.

Another strategy for thriving in this environment has to do with how people are managing their time. Our regular daily schedules have been turned upside down. Whether it be the normal rhythm of our children going to school, after-school activities, or even getting together with friends, everything has become more complicated. Making time for yourself and your own well-being has never been more important or more challenging. I recently read an article that suggests identifying a ceremonial or cognitive “moment” that ends your work day so that your work doesn’t bleed over into your personal evening/family time. Rather than doubling your time streaming or watching television, consider trying something new that you wouldn’t have tried otherwise. If you’re feeling in a funk, use the pandemic as an excuse to do that thing you always wanted or stretch yourself in a new way. Perhaps now is the time.

At MVCC, we’re starting the fourth week of our fall semester, and are six months into our first year of learning what it's like to operate during a pandemic. Some days are harder than others, but I’ve been inspired by stories from throughout the College in which pandemic-forced changes to the way we work have prompted innovative solutions that make us even better — many we will keep when the restrictions are lifted. And I guess that’s just it: Drawing on what Jim Collins identifies as the Stockdale Paradox in uncertain times, it’s healthier and more productive to focus on the belief that the restrictions will be lifted rather than to worry about when they’ll be lifted. Until then, taking one day at a time, focusing on our locus of control, and caring for our own well-being will help those molehills remain molehills so we have what we need when the real mountains get in our way.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this, as well as any strategies you’ve found useful in normalizing the chaos that seems to be all around us. You can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How I Spent My “Summer Vacation”

The Summer of 2020 was the summer that wasn’t for most all of us. The pandemic and related economic downturn sent many of us inside (except for front-line essential workers who still went to work every day) and removed most of the hurried rush from our daily lives. This allowed many Americans to slow down and see racial strife in our country in new ways.

It was unfortunate that media coverage of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were overtaken by riots — much in the way the message of NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice was overtaken by those who amplified the alternative narrative to make the kneeling about the American flag. Nevertheless, I believe a good portion of Americans began to see, for the first time, that racism in this country is systemic, composed of several layered and troubling elements that society works hard to mask and downplay.

Maximizer is my top strength in the Clifton Strengthsfinder assessment, so I gave some thought toward how I might make the most of “the great slowdown.” I’m not a project person, so it wasn’t going to be about building something, although learning to play the guitar or taking up a new hobby were considered. After being greatly moved by the BLM movement, I committed to expanding my understanding of racial injustice in this country.

I was raised in a very homogenous community outside of Flint, Michigan, and my primary exposure to anyone different from me was playing basketball in the city. It wasn’t until I attended graduate school at the University of Michigan that I really spent any considerable time in conversation with people of different racial and religious backgrounds and sexual orientations. I found that many of my beliefs were rooted in a lack of exposure and understanding that led to stereotypes, prejudices, and bias. When I got to know people who were different from me, I began to see everyone as individuals. The more I got to know my fellow students, colleagues, and friends, it became evident just how much I had to learn about diversity and race.

Over the last 30 years, my career in community colleges has given me the opportunity to learn a great deal about race through reading, workshops, and many friendships, acquaintances, and interactions with others. As much as I thought I knew about race, nothing prepared me for what I learned this summer. My journey started with emailing a statement to the College on the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, then reflecting on how to go beyond those words and take action — if only for myself.

  • A friend recommended I visit the Justice in June website where I found a brilliantly curated inventory of videos, podcasts, and articles about race in America. I started with the 10 minutes a day routine and moved from there.
  • I invited MVCC employees of color to join me for two rounds of meetings where many shared their experiences at the College and recommendations on how to make MVCC more inclusive. Their stories have inspired and changed me more than they will ever know.
  • Netflix had a special section of shows about the Black experience in America, and “I Am Not Your Negro” caught my eye. It was a documentary that felt more like a film to me because it was done in a way that engaged me from start to finish. It focused on race relations in mid-20th-century America through the eyes of author James Baldwin. This led me to look up his “pindrop speech” at Harvard in 1965 on YouTube, which subsequently filled my “recommended videos” queue with fascinating resources about race that I would not have found otherwise.
  • And on the recommendation of a colleague, I’m currently reading “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” by Derald Wing Sue and learning about the devastating cumulative effect of microaggressions that people of color experience every day. I have come to believe that microaggressions are a very uncomfortable valley through which white people need to walk and learn about the implicit bias that we all have — and yet, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard the term “microaggressions” until just a few short years ago.
You might say this blog post is the equivalent of the first day of third grade, standing in front of the class to present how I spent my summer vacation. At times it felt like anything but a vacation, with many uncomfortable moments and new revelations. As is the case with so much learning, it’s not as much about the answers you find as the questions you discover that make the difference in your growth. Looking back on this summer, which has been filled with so much stress and reasons to be sad, this work feels like the first few steps of a long, meaningful, and fascinating journey that will likely never end for me.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu

Friday, July 24, 2020

Coming to Back to Life

MVCC President Randall VanWagoner wears a face covering while he works in his office

I put socks on twice this week … er, I mean I worked two days in my office this week. Monday, July 20, was our first day back as part of a three-phase return for the Fall semester. I have to say it felt good and was a refreshing change for me in contrast to my “Zoom cocoon” of the past four months.

The Utica Campus was spotless. Our Facilities crew has been working on campus all this time and we all should be grateful for their commitment and hard work — the place is beautiful. The buildings and grounds stood out more than usual because there were so few of us on campus. It was a different feeling for sure. However, this was the plan all along: to keep our population density low to minimize risk and begin testing our approach to safety while the numbers are small.

After arriving on campus, I went to the checkpoint at Payne Hall and got my bracelet for the day. My first day it took less than five minutes to check in with a few people in line, and three days later it took less than one minute. The people staffing the doors to check for bracelets as people entered the building provided me an extra level of assurance that the people on campus have minimal risk of COVID-19, having answered the mandatory questions and not having a high temperature.

We have a couple of police academies in operation, in addition to several classes in the Science and Technology Building finishing classes that were suspended in the Spring. Walking around campus with my mask on felt as normal as going to the grocery store and was a small change to reap the benefit of running into colleagues and having unscheduled, informal conversations.

Walking around campus gave me a chance to reflect on just what a massive disruption this pandemic has created. We can “get things done” and check off our daily task lists while working remotely. But as I’ve learned over the years, “how” we get things done is often just as important as “what” gets done. Zoom and email certainly provide the technological means for our work, but the human element — even when six feet apart with a mask — is a powerful thing, particularly when it comes to the student experience.

Our challenge is to hold on to enough of that human element and provide what we can to the extent possible with safety measures in place. I often say that change never happens at the right pace — it’s too fast for some and too slow for others; too much for some and too little for others. Our phased return is intended to provide a slow and measured change to allow the College to implement safety protocols in ways that allow for evaluation and adjustment and provide all of us with a steady and supportive experience in emerging — if only a little bit — from our Zoom cocoons…and revisiting parts of our closets we haven’t seen in months.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Another Phase of “New Normal”

MVCC went fully remote on March 23, 2020. Over those 119 days, our world was turned upside down and rotated a few different ways, but we’re still on our feet. We all have masks now and the rhythm of our days is different yet the same. The Mohawk Valley region is doing fairly well with limiting the number of infections and maintaining capacity in our healthcare system. Higher education (and MVCC) was approved to reopen when the region achieved Phase Four status, so we’ll move from fully remote to partially remote on July 20, 2020. As we look toward our staggered return to campus, I can’t help but reflect on where we’ve been and where I see us going.

To maintain a reasonable density of people on campus, we’re bringing staff back in a staggered, phased approach. On Monday, July 20, we’ll begin a three-phased, staggered return of our workforce. Our Responsible Restart Plan that was approved by SUNY has an outer limit of the percentage of our full-time employees, but we’ll be well short in each phase, having the wiggle room to increase on-campus staffing if we need it as follows:
  • July 20 — No more than 33% (26% projected)
  • Aug. 3 — No more than 50% (34% projected)
  • Aug. 24 — No more than 66% (46% projected)
While many of our essential employees in Facilities, Public Safety, and IT have been coming to campus every day and “flex-essential” employees in the Business Office and many others have been coming to campus periodically over the past four months, it’s time for many of the rest of us to move toward the “masked normal” they’ve all been living. We’ll have roughly 25% of our courses on campus along with more than 150 students living in the residence halls. Additionally, we’ll have an as-of-yet unknown number of students coming to campus for access to the internet, useful study spaces, and likely a sense of a normal college experience with in-person human interaction under current social distancing guidelines.

The transition to remote operations over the past few months has brought new and unique experiences to us both individually and collectively. We’ve been able to grieve the sense of loss we’ve felt from our lifetimes of routine and also celebrate the building of new memories both personally and professionally. Our challenge going forward is to commit ourselves in the effort of keeping everyone safe while raising our own bar of personal accountability to make sure the work gets done for students and each other in the face of unsettling and unfamiliar circumstances. I’ve been so proud to see our culture evolve over the past few years to increasingly adapt, innovate, and rise to the challenges that came our way.

Just when we thought transitioning to remote operations was our greatest challenge, rising to what the coming Fall semester is likely to bring will most certainly challenge us to bring our best selves to work every day, so get ready to surprise yourself and each other with what we’re going to do.

If you have any questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Change, Grief, and Working Remotely

When I am faced with a confusing phenomenon or experience, I challenge myself to make sense of it. Working remotely has been a confusing and uncomfortable shift for me, which has me thinking a lot about change lately. I have studied organizational change for almost thirty years, and generally enjoy change in both my personal and professional experiences. But the past three weeks have provided a palpable application of what I’ve come to learn. Two important elements of change worth noting are the pace of change and the emotions of change. It was clear that this change to remote operations was much too quick for everyone, but processing the emotions associated with what we all are experiencing feels far more complex.

It’s easy to say the pace of change moves too fast for some, too slow for others, and rarely just right for anyone. In this case, it seems safe to say that it moved at the same pace and was not right for any of us. But we did it, which is a statement of triumph in itself. I like to think of change moving at a pace best described by Tushman and Romanelli (1985) in their model of punctuated equilibrium. All living organisms (and organizations) evolve through periods of equilibrium (no change) and sudden periods of punctuations (change). The longer the periods of equilibrium, the punctuated periods of change will be more dramatic. Optimally, organizations will have more regular periods of change with muted punctuation levels and smaller periods of equilibrium for rest and recovery. Similar to a high-performance athlete who trains their muscles through periods of intense workouts (punctuations) and periods of rest and recovery (equilibrium), an organization can become stronger by learning how to manage change. Needless to say, the move to remote operations was a heavy deadlift that required all of us to “move on the count of three!” And we did it.

The emotions of change are directly tied to the pace of change. If change occurs suddenly with little time to comprehend the reasons, implications, and significance of what’s happening, emotions can be confusing, intense, and mixed in ways that are difficult to manage. Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church in California, gave a great TEDx talk on remaining relevant. He said understanding and managing change is critical to stay relevant in the modern world. Recognizing the link between change and grief is critical in that when we think someone (including ourselves!) is resisting change, they may just be grieving that change. As he said, “There is no growth without change; no change without loss; no loss without pain; and no pain without grief.” We may not be resisting change, we may very well be grieving, and it’s important to acknowledge that possibility. With that in mind, I found a seven-stage model on the phases of change in Google images and overlaid that with the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Many of the stages have the exact same description in both models.
With regard to working remotely, I’m proud to say I think we’re all doing it pretty well, and things are going relatively smoothly under really stressful constraints. However, I share all of this because I’m seeing a subtle shift in many Zoom meetings and emails over the past three weeks, and in my own feelings, as well. It seems we’ve moved through the shock and denial phases and are moving at varied paces into feelings of frustration, anger, and bargaining with the toll and grind of our collective circumstance.

The stories of our faculty and staff contacting students and providing them with inspiring levels of support, understanding, and flexibility continue to multiply by the day. This unprecedented crisis is pushing all of us to embody the notion of “every student, every day” in ways we perhaps never thought possible. We are living our core values of modeling the way, inspiring confidence, encouraging excellence, and truly embracing our community. For example, one student couldn’t bring herself to log in to her five classes because she was so overwhelmed with the thought of learning online. Her Student Support Advisor convinced her to give it a try, and the student found each and every one of her faculty members willing to provide her the flexibility and support to feel confident that she could do it. As a result, the student reported it wasn’t as bad as she thought and she’s committed to finishing her semester.

We have come to expect an endless well of patience, goodwill, and empathy from ourselves and our colleagues to move students through their academic journey — a tall order under the best circumstances. Right now, many of us are experiencing the same recurring cycles of stress, isolation, anxiety, and being overwhelmed as our students. I mentioned early on the need to support each other in all of this, but as we transition through these stages of change, and even grief for our loss of normalcy, it’s more important than ever to reach out, check in, and stay connected so we can find support and strength in one another.

If we acknowledge the pace and emotions associated with this stressful change in our personal and professional lives, we increase our understanding of what’s happening. We’ll then be better equipped to develop coping mechanisms to successfully navigate these unchartered waters that are anything but smooth. If we keep everyone in the boat, we’ll all make it to shore on the other side.

If you have any questions, comments, or insights, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Week 1 of COVID-19 Remoteness Down …

Humans are generally social creatures. Even many who consider themselves introverts are hard pressed to say the social-isolating parameters under which we’re all living are not a challenge. This historic reality is and shall continue to test each of us in ways we’re only just starting to understand.

I spent my first full week of working remotely straining for some kind of routine to touch a sense of normalcy in this remarkably abnormal environment. I meet with my office team every morning for a Zoom meeting just to stay connected and pretend that we’re still doing our morning catch-up in the office before phones start ringing and meetings commence. It’s certainly not the same, but I cherish these virtual check-ins since they are as close as we can make it for now.

Things are definitely different, but Zoom meetings with colleagues still getting work done in spite of the circumstances motivate me. I’m inspired by stories of faculty and staff reaching out to students to encourage and support them through this major disruption, which for many was just one more thing they didn’t need to contend with in their already complex lives. Also inspiring are the innovative actions departments like the Business Office, Information Technology, Residence Life, and others have taken to adapt and stretch themselves and their processes in this new environment. 

When I need a boost of positive energy, I visit our internal MVCC Workplace social platform to see the great pictures and posts from employees sharing their experiences and staying connected despite being apart. I’m not going to lie, the email volume is a bit intense and the unprecedented screen time can feel like a burden somedays. The workday isn’t as tight as it used to be, and when work and home are all happening in the same place, the time can just bleed and feel like you’re always on despite never feeling completely on — if that makes any sense.

One thing that I believe needs to be reinforced is what I’ve come to learn about change — it moves too fast for some, too slow for others, and rarely right for anyone. This change came much too fast for everyone — the transition to working remotely all happened in about a week. We’ve quickly gone from talking about work/life balance vs. work/life integration to everything completely converging on us. When speaking about change I always encourage people to be patient with themselves and also with others. Never has that notion been more important.

I join many of you in wrestling with the feeling of wondering if I’m being productive “enough” without really knowing if that can be defined in this environment. I can block out time for a Zoom meeting here and there, but then something pops on the family front, or a distraction (like the snack cupboard or refrigerator!) presents itself to pull me away from being as productive as I think I should be. I think of those parents with young children at home and I can barely imagine what that must be like. I’ve been watching Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show: At Home Edition, and he asked Lin-Manuel Miranda if he was writing any new Broadway musicals like Hamilton, and he replied, “Writing? Working? I’m learning how to teach my kid math!” So even the most successful professionals are dealing with prioritizing each day, which brings a special blend of unprecedented freedom and opportunity with brutal isolation and monotony.

Here at the start of week number two, I’m going to try and “model the way” myself and encourage everyone to let go of any guilt — whether subtle or prominent — for feeling less productive than we think we should be. By recognizing the magnitude of this time in history that we’re living through as our present, we should all embrace each other in knowing that everyone is doing their best under the circumstances. Some days are going to be busier than a good day on campus and others will feel like we’re adrift in an open sea.

Our individual and collective resilience for ourselves, our students, and our family and friends will be something that truly will make us stronger when we get on the other side of this. We’ll be able to look back on last week when everything felt so foreign and clunky and face future challenges with a newfound strength and confidence that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t gone through this crisis together.

If you have any questions, comments, or insights, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.