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Exemplary Leadership in a time of Crisis

Note from Randy Helm: I believe that the true character of individuals and institutions is best revealed by how they respond in times of crisis. This recent letter to the Colby College community from Colby's President David Greene, seems like a powerful illustration of this principle and is worth sharing (with David's permission - though he was not immodest enough to write the title of this blog post - that was my doing).

Dear Colby Community,

At times of rapid change, uncertainty, and threat, we need anchoring to gain the stability and assurance that allow us to call on our best judgments and our best selves. We each find that mooring in our own ways. For me it comes from being with my family and the Colby community and from viewing every significant decision we are making on behalf of the College in the context of its enduring values and mission.

Recently I wrote to you about the principles that would shape our first-order decisions—the health and safety of our community and the primacy of our educational program. Today I want to describe three additional tenets that are deeply rooted in Colby’s traditions and are informing our policies and practices: Colby as an exemplary employer, our commitment to empowering students to make thoughtful decisions, and the College as a full and engaged member of the broader community. At the end of this letter, I will also provide a brief update on our thinking about commencement and reunion (although we are not announcing any decisions at this point).

Colby as an Exemplary Employer

The headlines today are about millions of jobs being lost, unemployment rolls spiking, and the most vulnerable workers being cast aside. Here in Waterville, I am hearing from staff members about their partners and spouses losing jobs suddenly and unexpectedly. Colby employs about 1,000 individuals. In my view, we cannot be a great college if we are not an exceptional employer. That means providing an environment and resources for faculty and staff to do their very best work, and it also means caring for their well-being at all times—especially during the most challenging ones.

When this crisis began to unfold, we quickly moved to protect the health and safety of our employees by moving to work-at-home practices whenever possible, instituting social-distancing policies for those working on campus, and restricting in-person group gatherings and meetings. As local schools closed, we told employees to prioritize the needs of their families. For those employees whose work is physically on campus, such as our Facilities Services workers, we have staggered their shifts to minimize the number of people on campus and create physical distance. That means these critical staff members are now working only part time; nonetheless, we have maintained their full-time pay and benefits. We have about 80 Dining Services workers who are employees of our food service provider, Bon Appétit. With very few students on campus, we need a small fraction of that group to be working regularly. But as we have done with our own Colby staff, we have provided them with their regular pay and benefits despite reduced hours. All of us at Colby know of the dedication of those who care for this community every day, and I will do everything I can to make sure Colby cares for them as well.

Another group that can feel vulnerable in times of disruption are tenure-track faculty, who work for a defined period of time—normally six years from the time of hire—before being considered for tenure and promotion. Earning tenure is a defining moment in the life of a faculty member, and the outcome is determined by the teaching, scholarship, and service to the community of the professor over that time. Because the current situation could have a major impact on those areas, we will be allowing any faculty member on the tenure track to add an extra year of employment before coming up for tenure. The tenure and promotion process is rigorous and thorough, but I believe it should also be generous in affording faculty the opportunity to create their very best portfolio of work.

Empowering Students

We have many goals for a Colby education, and one that I view as essential is imbuing our students with a sense of agency and with the tools to make sound, informed judgments throughout their lives. With that in mind, and given the change to remote learning, we have considered a number of options for our grading policy this semester. Some have argued for mandating credit/no credit or satisfactory/unsatisfactory for all courses. Others have argued for the importance of assigning letter grades to preserve access to future opportunities (e.g., graduate school), for proper recognition of hard work, or even because letter grades are essential to raising a GPA that might have faltered for any number of reasons.

Given variation in learning styles and priorities, we have determined that providing our students with substantial flexibility to choose the grading practice that is best for them this semester is the right way forward. Students will be able to take any or all courses for letter grades or for satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) designation. The typical constraints on using this designation for courses in majors and minors will not pertain this semester. The final date for designating courses S/U will be the last day of classes, May 8, which provides ample time for decision-making. We recognize that these decisions can be complicated or feel like a high-stakes exercise. Students will be advised closely by faculty and class deans as they choose the grading system that suits their individual situations and will receive more details on these issues soon.

Colby in the Community

Our commitment to the community is unwavering. We see it in the investments we have made in downtown Waterville, in the way our students, faculty, and staff engage productively in the community, in how we share our campus and facilities throughout the year, and in how we focus on helping Maine businesses prosper. The current public health crisis has caused us to ask how we can best partner with regional governments, medical centers, social service agencies, first responders, and other educational institutions to create a robust network of assets and expertise to address a range of possible scenarios we could be facing in the weeks and months ahead. I have contacted leaders of municipalities and organizations throughout our region to promote proactive planning on needs for labor, housing, hospital capacity, supplies, technology, and expertise. We have the advantage of learning from communities that have faced immediate and overwhelming demand for these resources, but we also need to act quickly so we are fully prepared for the challenges that could be upon us soon. As I have made clear to local leaders, Colby is fully committed to being a key partner in this work.

Updates on Campus Celebrations

We are roughly two months from our planned commencement activities and a little further away from reunion. I have heard from many parents who are eager to know whether we are canceling or postponing commencement so they can plan accordingly. I am asking for a little more patience on this decision. At this point there is no way we could say with certainty that we could hold commencement in late May, but I also know how important it is to our students (as it is to me!) to have this beautiful, celebratory, and hard-earned occasion. We are working with senior class leaders on alternative dates and ideas for commencement, should we have to delay it, and I would like to have a stronger assessment of those options while continuing to monitor the broader situation as it relates to possible travel, gatherings, and more. Needless to say, the news has not brightened on these issues. We will continue to work with the senior class representatives and share a final decision on commencement within two weeks. One way or another, we will celebrate with the Class of 2020 when it is safe to do so.

Gathering for reunion presents a similar set of issues. This week I spoke with the organizers of the 50th reunion class from the great Class of 1970. As much as they have been looking forward to this important moment in their lives, they have serious concerns about being able to travel to Waterville in early June. We will talk to volunteers from other reunion classes and announce a decision on reunion at the same time we announce a decision on commencement.

Housing and Dining Credits

I mentioned in an earlier letter that we would be providing prorated reimbursements for room and board for students who have lived on campus this semester. Our financial services team is calculating those credits now and families can expect detailed information about them within a few days.

Closing Thoughts

Let me close this letter where I began, on the concept of feeling tethered to something important, stable, and lasting. I have the good fortune of benefiting from that nourishing connection every day because of my life at Colby and because of the love of my family. My family and I are together now, and for that I could not be more grateful. We are able to share worries and laughs and experience the beauty of deep human connection when that otherwise seems in short supply. We have been healthy, but I know many are struggling. It can be hard to assess what to do at these moments. I know I am powerless to stop this pandemic. But I also recognize that in this corner of the world I can do everything possible to support our employees when they need Colby most, to ensure our students can continue their outstanding education, and to help our local community prepare for challenges that are certain to come. And each day I look for some small, but I hope important, way to make a useful difference. The world needs grand gestures at this moment to be sure, but each of us finding ways to contribute will have a multiplier effect that will save lives and strengthen our communities.

Next week our students start online classes. I am eager to hear from them and from our faculty about this new mode of learning for Colby. I am not naïve to the challenges of moving courses online mid-semester, but I am sanguine about the learning opportunities ahead, in no small part because of how our faculty has embraced this challenge. Great classroom experiences are created by talented, dedicated professors and students who feel a shared responsibility for fostering an environment conducive to learning and discovery. That is the hallmark of a Colby education, and it will shine through in the weeks ahead when we all commit to the core mission of this wonderful College—an institution that for more than two centuries has made it through this world’s most challenging moments and stands taller than ever.

I am sending you all good wishes from Mayflower Hill, where I impatiently await the full return of our amazing community.

David A. Greene