This picture was taken from Fiterman Hall, the Borough of Manhattan Community College building that had to be rebuilt after 9/11. The memorial and museum are visible to the right; the transportation hub, the Oculus, is the dramatic white structure to the left.

The Presidents Academy Summer Institute (PASI) July 22 – 25 in New York City, included a visit to the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), where Dr. Antonio Perez, who is completing his 23rd year as president, honored us with a presentation about leadership.

BMCC is only a short distance from ground zero. On 9/11, students and staff watched the towers come down. They saw office workers jump to their death and, as a command center for police, fire and military rescue operations, watched the list of victims among these service men and women grow.  Covered with debris and rendered unstable by the collapse of Seven World Trade Center, Fiterman Hall was evacuated and did not reopen until 2012.  

Every leader confronted with a disaster must serve multiple roles. They must be healers. They must be inspirational. They must ensure that a myriad of administrative functions, such as payroll, construction, insurance, public relations and legal responses continue as seamlessly as possible.

At a prior PASI we heard from Rita Cavin, who had been the interim president during the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. She began her presentation by asking us to write a list of our ten “go to” people on campus. Then she went through her own list, explaining how many of the individuals were traumatized or incapacitated, took early retirement, or needed to take care of their own families and couldn’t fulfill their job responsibilities. Dr. Perez also mentioned a staff person who simply “disappeared,” unable to provided one of the college’s essential services. This was a shocking wake up call, something I had never considered.

Seeing to the needs of the campus during a massive tragedy would not be possible if it weren’t for the relationships, internal and external, that have been built over time. Dr. Perez was able to use relationships with Verizon to get a phone bank and call all 17,000 students to let them know the school was, astonishingly, reopening on October 1. Moving forward also depends on developing leadership across the campus. People whose skills are valued and who are recognized for taking initiative will step up when the occasion arises. Dr. Perez gave credit to the facilities staff who exercised their own judgment and took actions, like closing off air ducts, that prevented the soot and ashes from permeating the building. Had they not acted, the campus would never have reopened so quickly.

Perhaps most importantly, action depends on a leader willing to take risks. Dr. Perez’s non-negotiable priority was to get the students back in classes. He knew how detrimental further delay would be to students whose ability to pursue an education was tenuous, but essential to improving their lives. Despite pushback from the CUNY administration, Dr. Perez acted decisively.  

Fortunately, I never had to deal with anything resembling these tragedies, but when my CFO died on a Saturday morning two weeks shy of his 41st birthday, I had to call all the other VPs and, on Monday morning, bring the campus together to make the formal announcement and plan both for a service and a way to keep the many functions for which he was responsible operational. Two weeks later I hosted the memorial service attended by several hundred people. As one of my colleagues said at PASI, I must have skipped that page in graduate school. Nothing had prepared me for the emotional roller coaster of having to lead after losing a beloved colleague and friend. But what stands out in my memory of this event was not what I did, but how many employees went out of their why to inquire about my well-being. It was symbolic of the caring culture at the college. 

Campuses are now paying attention to preparing for disasters. They have emergency procedures and continuous operations plans. But the best preparation for leaders is to build strong partnerships on and off campus and have a clear commitment to the values and mission of the institution.

Barbara ViniarComment