100 Daily Updates and CountingMichael McDonough | President, Raritan Valley Community College
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned an already fragile higher education landscape into one of anxiety and doubt. It has created financial havoc, derailed student expectations and fueled uncertainty about the future. As soon as we transitioned to remote teaching and learning, as soon as we closed our campus, one thing became clear: communication would become a vital and unifying force for our campus community. A daily digital update became, for me, a crucial responsibility. And I anticipated two closely allied outcomes: an opportunity to inform through a single voice and an opportunity to insist on a shared responsibility for the future of our institution.
Now, after three months, the benefits of this accidental labor seem shockingly obvious. These daily digital olios provided:
For students, staff, trustees and other stakeholders, the updates–focusing on campus events and beyond–provided news about the transition to digital learning, the availability of remote support services, the vital access to our food pantry and other community resources, the application process for CARES Act funds, and the creation of county resources for the newly unemployed. Our physical resource centers may have been closed, but this single digital advocate could empower and direct students to help.
The pandemic threatened student momentum, and it posed an especially significant threat to our most vulnerable students. These updates became the digital dais for encouragement, applause, and expressions of care. The pandemic reminded us of fundamental college values, of the need for compassion and empathy and of our fundamental and shared humanity.
All of our community members needed to understand and embrace this impact: the sudden and sharp loss of anticipated revenues, the unbudgeted expenses of remote operations, and the collapse of state funding. Each individual challenge created a financial emergency, and the entire campus community needed to be informed of it and retain the ability to track our progress.
It also provides an inspiring and celebratory catalog of our “RVCC Heroes” (healthcare workers and first responders), of our campus as a bi-county COVID-19 testing site and of our workforce division as a leader for regional economic recovery and displaced worker training.
Especially our objectives for the immediate crisis–to maintain and support teaching and learning at all costs, to protect the health and safety of all students, staff and visitors, and to ensure the college’s long-term sustainability.
Facing a profound fiscal collapse, I appealed to donors, government officials and community leaders for support. I asked–demanded–that they support our students and their inspiring efforts to achieve the “American Dream;”
After only a few days, it became clear that I could not–would not–avoid political commentary. First, the CARES Act allocations treated community college students as less important than those at traditional higher education institutions. Second, international students, undocumented students and Dreamers were marginalized, threatened with actions almost impossible to imagine during a pandemic. Third, students of color, poor students and underrepresented students–in short, students who define the very promise of community college–were bearing the pandemic’s harshest consequences. We were seeing whole communities devastated by infection, economic collapse and the seeming indifference of national policies.
We also saw a daily assault on science and a corruption of language to belittle and create division. Our digital meeting place provided an opportunity to consider an alternative narrative, to remind all of us about the power of words and the transformational authority of science. I hoped that our digital updates became a place to assert our worth, document our protest and acknowledge the inevitability of our advocacy.
For many of our students, campus had become a place not only of learning but of support, connection and familiarity. The pandemic robbed our students of that anchor–a daily message, while imperfect, helped to restore a sense of belonging, offered a reliable daily ritual and reminded us of the richness of our shared campus identity. For staff working remotely, a daily message emphasized a common purpose, offered connection and allowed us to celebrate our collective labor. And for trustees, local officials and other stakeholders, the daily update encouraged community, enlarging our circle of influence and compassion.
But there’s one more benefit to discuss.
Above all, these daily updates made me a better leader. Perhaps, at first, I imagined them as digital distractions, but in an instant, they became the defining characteristic of my response (our institutional response) to this surreal time. They allowed me to discover–or perhaps more properly to rediscover–my voice, a voice that was sometimes uncertain, sometimes frustrated and sometimes strident. They allowed me to champion collaboration and to see an institution emerge as the sum of so many parts. They allowed me to reconnect with students, to share in their immediate concerns and to recognize their needs. Their responses to each update revealed the many ways in which we needed to improve as an institution and the barriers we needed to remove for their success.
These updates became an essential beginning to my day, a reassuring ritual in these anxious times.
In the end, I think these updates became the record of my own accidental and modest epiphany–that a daily digital update champions the most fundamental requirements of leadership in these times: honesty, compassion and a shared, optimistic belief in the future.