Title

Taking a Risk During the Pandemic

My decision to step away from my presidency at Greenfield Community College.

May 26, 2022
 
 

Many friends and colleagues have asked me in the last six months to write about my decision to step away from my presidency at Greenfield Community College. At first, I declined although I was open to chatting about it, especially with women. I needed time and distance. After all, my decision to leave the presidency came down to creating more balance in my life, more harmony between the things I must do and the things I truly enjoy doing that I had been neglecting for some time.

These are extraordinarily challenging times to be leading at the helm. Prior to my position at Greenfield Community College, I had led another small college in New Jersey and served as interim president at another college in Massachusetts. I was no stranger to leadership, but this was different. To be in charge in these last two years, even as we are adapting to the pandemic’s prolonged effects, continues to be strenuous for leaders. For me, it was stressful. However, despite the strains, I embraced what I saw as an opportunity to be physically present—way more than in pre-pandemic times—with my family.

At the height of the pandemic, we reserved the weekends for going on family walks, hikes and trips to the many waterfalls around where we live in western Massachusetts. Without a calendar full of morning breakfasts, evening dinners and weekend events, I was able to cook for my family—an activity that gives me great joy. We played board games on the weekends, and I got to spend quality time with our kids. These activities helped to release the pressure that dominated my days.

The early days of COVID-19 were especially difficult. While I curated my access to news and information to make decision making as objective as possible, others’ panic in a period of great uncertainty would inevitably spill over into my thinking. I had to take into account faculty, staff and students’ emotional states, reactions and anxieties. Part of my job was to have a pulse on all of our constituents’ changing feelings about the pandemic and to provide communication, clarity, a sense of calm, leadership and hope that things will get better. My colleagues and I also worked hard to maintain remote social connections during long periods of social and physical distancing, organizing happy hours and what felt like group therapy sessions at times. They were all necessary.

The faculty and staff were working hard to transition to remote learning and support students. Everyone was exhausted, and some were directly affected by the pandemic. Many of our students were essential workers and had to work during the pandemic, putting their lives in danger for the rest of us who had the luxury of earning our living remotely. Even for students who could work remotely, spending most, if not all, of their time in crowded dwellings with their children, roommates or loved ones made for a challenging learning and working environment. Living in a rural region where many towns lack access to broadband internet or even cellphone service, some students were even more disadvantaged by the campus closure. We also had students who, with no income, were forced to move into less-than-ideal home situations or had to care for loved ones who were ill with or without the virus. Their stories were heartbreaking.

Political frustration added to the health crisis. Living in a well-known liberal bubble of the state, even before the pandemic, there were angst and high levels of dissatisfaction with the election of Donald J. Trump. Our region is known for its political activism, fueled by the youthful energy of undergraduate and graduate students as well as a politically active population of older adults. Across the board, people were angry with the handling of the pandemic. As the social and racial unrests piled on, so did the anger.

Part of the role of president requires being skilled in absorbing others’ anger and still responding politely, even with a smile. As a Black Caribbean American, the incident with Amy Cooper in Central Park, the death of George Floyd, the murder of Breonna Taylor and so many of the other racial events were difficult to process. I had little space to deal with my own frustration but had to make space to allow others to process theirs—to engage students, faculty and staff in discussions on current events. The attacks on Asian Americans and Jews added to the continuous cycle of violence that necessitated a response and gathering of our community. While a virus was ravaging the world, human-induced pain was destroying our spirits. Still, I led.

Leading a Small Rural College

From a finance perspective, we were spending money—lots of it and without a sense of what the future held. We were doing what needed to be done, weighing all options and centering people at the heart of the toughest decisions. As a small rural college in a region with a shrinking college-age population and a growing older adult community, we were financially prudent and factored reasonable challenges into our contingency planning, mostly related to weather. We could not have anticipated a challenge of the magnitude of a pandemic. This was a whole new ball game!

Before the pandemic, higher education faced a host of challenges, including declining enrollments, shrinking tuition revenue, retirement of faculty in disciplines like nursing that are hard to fill, cyberthreats and an unsustainable business model. As a sector, our challenges were significant without a global health crisis. COVID-19 quickly exacerbated things. When we closed our college in rural western Massachusetts on March 10, 2020, we were hopeful that, after an extended spring break, we would return to campus by the end of the month. As we watched the pandemic progress, we slowly faced the realization that we would likely not return to campus en masse by the end of the semester. At my campus, our chief information officer had the foresight early on to begin ordering laptops, Chromebooks and hotspots. This diminished the adverse impact of the supply chain disruptions on our students, faculty and staff. Securing enough Zoom licenses became our biggest challenge. Working with our chief financial officer, the Board of Trustees and I had significantly grown our financial reserves in the prior two years and, thus, had emergency funds to support our students and operations.

As at many colleges and universities, federal financial support was essential to sustaining our college in the long months that followed. We faced many critical decisions. We had no blueprint and no road map for what was to come. As a cabinet, we made the best decisions we could given the information that we had. We consulted with our local collective bargaining units, sought insights from students, connected with other leaders and ran multiple financial models and scenarios with different assumptions of how long the pandemic would last. In our decision making, we centered people: our students, our employees and even our local community. As a central gathering place, the college had been a place where the community convened for celebrations, training, important forums and other activities. Even before we shut down campus, we ceased allowing events, to limit the potential spread of the virus, even though we knew very little at that point. The college eventually became a testing and vaccination site. As a community college, it was important that we live up to our mission, especially in those unprecedented times.

In the first year of the pandemic, a colleague whom I deeply respect and hold in high esteem approached me about an opportunity to lead a four-year university. While I was honored and it would allow me to return to the four-year segment from a two-year college, I felt a strong moral obligation to see my own college through the most difficult months of the pandemic. I was also afraid of what my departure would signal about the viability of our college. In the end, I could not see myself leaving the college I had come to love, even though we had a strong leadership team that could very ably lead forward. I passed on the offer.

By the time the opportunity to join Southern New Hampshire University in the fall of 2021 came along, we had developed a road map for how to continue to lead and navigate the pandemic waters at my small college. The vaccines had already become widely available. We were planning on resuming classes in person in the fall and had already begun offering summer classes on campus for select allied health courses. We had been able to cover our losses with federal funding and had distributed aid in the form of cash directly to students in multiple installments. We had begun hiring for open positions again. The college was in a more stable position. Still, I found the decision to step away from my college and embrace a new challenge and opportunity a difficult one to make.

While my new post as senior vice president for operations planning at SNHU brings its own demands, working mostly remotely allows me time to take our children to school, attend their school events and functions, read with them, opine on their writings, host their friends, and make dinner. Being able to be part of their lives during these critical years is a delightful gift. As president, I missed so many recitals and games and was reliably absent for dinner most evenings. Although I travel from time to time now, I get to savor our kids’ transition to teenagehood and adulthood. Now that our boy and girl are growing into young people who can express their views on a wide array of subjects, with passions, strong convictions, imagination and creative self-expression, I am glad to be fully present and guide their formation.

When I made the decision to step away from the presidency, I received mostly support from friends and colleagues, although a couple of people saw it as a step backward. I received messages from many women, some of whom I did not know well and our only connection was LinkedIn. They thanked me for having the courage to make such a bold move and said they felt inspired, though some expressed that they could not step away even though leading through the pandemic was oppressive for them. For me, making the decision to step down from the presidency meant that I needed to not care about what others would say. And, yes, there were a few who questioned my decision. Why would I want to go back in my career? Why would I want to join a primarily online university? Was I not succeeding?

It was a deeply personal decision and one that required that I put myself first. An unexpected opportunity of great magnitude was presented to me and, in my gut, I knew that if I did not take it, I would regret that decision. I remember standing in the bathroom, looking into the mirror and thinking that I did not have to be a president for the rest of my life. While I enjoyed doing the job, enjoyed the impact that my colleagues and I were having on students’ lives, and enjoyed advocating for our college and our community, especially as a rural institution whose location many in my own state struggle to identify, the pandemic had changed many things for me. Most importantly, it forced me to examine my life and center the activities that give me joy. I finally had the clarity that life is short.

Designated as the most innovative regional university by U.S. News & World Report, SNHU is an institution like no other. My suspicion that I would regret not jumping on the offer to join President Paul LeBlanc and his team was affirmed in my first interaction with the executive team. The leaders are smart and with varied backgrounds from a range of industries. They are dynamic and live, not just think, outside the box. The institution draws from the best of higher education, adapts and emulates proven practices from industries outside higher education. It integrates artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep human connections with students to increase student success and ensure high levels of employee satisfaction for which it has been recognized as one of the “best colleges to work for” for multiple years. Watching SNHU as an outside observer, I was impressed. Seeing up front how the university defines the standard for ensuring access and success for students who have historically been underserved by higher ed and watching how SNHU innovates from within continues to be a unique experience. SNHU’s mission is to transform lives at scale. I now get to impact students’ lives at a scale that I could not at a small college. While I miss the close bonds that I developed with students and colleagues at the smaller colleges where I worked previously, knowing that I get to positively influence the lives of over 170,000 students is gratifying.

I am enjoying my new adventure. Sure, it holds its own challenges, but, over all, not having to be the face of an institution or its chief ambassador is a relief. As a president, I strove to never have a bad day (as far as others could tell), always kept a smile on my face and approached even the most contentious meetings with a pleasant disposition. It took a toll after a while. It’s nice to find the balance of making meaningful contributions while maintaining balance and time to enjoy the people who matter most in my life.

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