Last weekend we came far too close to every college president’s nightmare.
The calls started coming early Sunday morning. A fraternity house on campus was on fire.
Complicating the situation for me, I was away from campus.
First, and most importantly, we learned that our students were out of the building. Nothing else matters in such moments.Local firefighters worked heroically for nine hours in an effort to save the building, but it was clear early on that it would be a total loss.
The next days were a whirlwind. In a small close-knit community like ours, people want to help. Students brought personal care items, clothing and blankets to chapel Sunday night. Community members offered support, and local businesses provided gift certificates to the students. Alumni from the fraternity were on campus to help even while the house was still smoldering. Thanks to our conversations on Facebook and Twitter, other alumni and friends of the college from across the country received early notice of the crisis and offered their help and prayers.
In such times, we see the values of an institution clearly. This small college came together around the 11 young men who lost their campus house, as well as the seven young women, who were also temporarily displaced from a neighboring house because of smoke damage.
We also saw the excellence of our caring and dedicated staff, who worked tirelessly to ensure our students’ immediate safety and help them to find alternate housing.
As president, I found all the more reason for confidence in the skills of my colleagues across campus. As I returned to campus the next day, it was clear that their actions, like those of local officials responding to the fire, were exemplary.
We will have much to review in the weeks to come: our emergency preparedness, policies related to campus houses, etc. As often happens, growth will come from adversity and we will be a stronger institution once we can look back on this experience from a reasonable distance.
But, for now, we count our blessings....