Most often, I choose some angle on a positive story for Alma in writing this blog. Even the stories about the challenges for higher education end up with something of a positive spin. Such is the nature of presidential journalism, I suppose.
But, even for the elite colleges, not all of the news is good. What happens when the college runs into a major disappointment? How do you discuss such matters in public? The old-style PR office would have counseled that we leave such news altogether out from public discussion, but since I came to Alma, I’ve been espousing transparency, so I need to “walk my talk.”
This fall, after considerable hype and public discussion about the leasing of student apartment space in a newly renovated Opera House three blocks from campus in Alma's historic downtown, the developer of the project let me know that he couldn't deliver the building by the start of fall classes.
There was no particular blame to be assigned in this: renovations of historic buildings are inevitably complex, as is the financing for such projects.
But the disappointment is keen, both on campus and in town.
We had committed to 45 students — returning seniors who signed up for the off-campus apartments earlier in the spring with great anticipation — who were naturally extremely disappointed that the new apartments were not ready.
Likewise, residents of our small town have been looking to this project and its restorative potential since the building burned three years ago. Any setback has the potential to undermine confidence in the town-gown partnership that is a core platform of the college's strategic plan.
We expressed our sincere regrets to the students and offered multiple options and compensation for alternative housing arrangements — back in on-campus residence hall rooms or other off-campus locations. The options were costly — we used the penalties applied to the developer for late delivery and a considerable sum beyond — but necessary to ensure that our students were as comfortable as possible. The developer and I invited the affected students to be our dinner guests to discuss the delay and tour the Opera House. We opened up the communication lines.
We also have reached out to community leaders and partners to ensure them of the college's commitment to the project — and to the community. We strive to strengthen the connection between the college and community, place a growing number of interns with local non-profits and governmental entities, and encourage community members, merchants and students to meet and interact.
For Alma College, creating residential space downtown addresses a major need as the college strives to continue its enrollment growth. Working together with investors and community leaders to place student residents downtown is beneficial long-term for both the college and the community. For both the city and college to thrive, we must look at the resources we already have instead of waiting for resources that may never come.
Yes, we’ve had a setback. But we are not abandoning our strategic direction. We are determined as ever to a sustainable future. The city of Alma has beautiful buildings downtown; let’s use them. That continues to be our goal.
Jeff Abernathy, President