• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Squirrel Isn’t Talking

Working through a loss of power.


September 8, 2016

Sometimes, a college is home to great thoughts in the process of forming. Classrooms are full of eager minds encountering spiky ideas for the first time, and learning the painful but rewarding process of intellectual growth. Dedicated faculty are working assiduously with scared-but-curious students to help them move beyond worlds they have known.  

Sometimes, squirrels take headers into transformers and plunge entire campuses into darkness.

This week featured both.

To be fair, I’m told it wasn’t exactly a “header.” Apparently -- and I don’t know how anyone can actually know this -- the squirrel’s tail got a leeeeetle too close to a sensitive part of where a wire meets a pole, and it got shocked. It fell to the ground, presumably dazed, where it was promptly run over by a truck. (That’s how we roll in Jersey.) In the meantime, the surge or short or spark or whatever (I wasn’t a physics major) triggered the transformer to explode, thereby plunging the campus into darkness for hours.

We don’t have a sense of the squirrel’s motives. It’s not talking. Nor is it entirely clear to me why our infrastructure is so vulnerable to furry little critters. That said, the squirrel is now running across that great wire in the sky, so its final thoughts are lost to history.

The outage happened shortly after the start of morning classes on Wednesday.  

It was the first week of class, so professors were just establishing rapport and ground rules with their students. Some classrooms have decently large windows, and it was a partly cloudy day, so they were able to keep going for a while. Others didn’t have windows, but kept going anyway.  I walked the hallways looking for anyone in trouble (i.e. in elevators) and spreading what little information I had. (It took a while before we had a sense of how long it would be before power was restored, which was what everyone really wanted to know.) I was impressed at the determination of the folks, both students and faculty, in the windowless classrooms. They used smartphones as flashlights and just kept right on going.  

One professor I hadn’t met before stopped me in the hallway and asked if I had any ideas what he could do for his students, since his room was so dark. I suggested bringing them out to a part of the hallway next to high windows, where they could at least see each other. He mentioned that it was a film class. I didn’t have an answer for that. To his credit, though, when I returned a bit later he was there with his students, engaging them in a conversation, standing by the windows.

As the prognosis become clearer, eventually the word went out that the college was closing. Extended operation without electricity is impractical in ways you might not consider.  For example, most of the bathrooms have sinks with faucets triggered by electric eyes. No electricity, no working sinks. That’s not tolerable for very long. In some areas we had students in wheelchairs on upper floors; without electricity, the elevators don’t work. We have evacuation chairs, which are great, but very much an emergency workaround. You don’t want to rely on them any more than you absolutely have to.

We have a text alert system, as many colleges do. Text alerts have to be short. Word choice matters in ways that you don’t necessarily realize until after the fact.  For example, does the phrase “closed for the day” imply also being closed for the evening? Does “closed until 1:00” mean that classes that run until, say, 1:15 have fifteen minutes? Lesson learned.

For all of the (legitimate) frustration students and faculty felt, I was impressed by everyone’s honest efforts to make the best of it. People changed lesson plans on the fly, and sometimes even changed locations.  As I walked around multiple floors of several buildings, I didn’t hear a single raised voice. That’s kind of amazing. There was some gallows humor, but it was deployed in efforts to keep an even keel.  Even as the buildings were at their worst, people were at their best.

The squirrel isn’t talking, so I’ll say it. I was proud of the nearly universal efforts I saw in every role to make the best of it. I’m scoring the day Brookdale 1, Squirrel 0.


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