A Burst Pipe Brings a Flood of Insights for a University President

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By Julie E. Wollman

As a university president, I know there is nothing good about my phone ringing at 4 a.m. — usually it means an emergency involving students or employees. So it was briefly a relief when the phone rang early one morning in mid-January, and the news was about a burst pipe in Old Main, our 150-year-old administration building.

Unfortunately the problem wasn’t minor: Water had flooded from the attic down through the four floors below — damaging a section of the building that included my entire office suite.

Four floors of photos, framed diplomas, irreplaceable mementos, paper files, and notebooks were destroyed. Piles of waterlogged items had to be disposed of because of the likelihood of mold. An entire section of the building had to be gutted, and the displaced staff members — including me — relocated for approximately seven months of renovations.

As administrators we all know the importance of getting outside our own office building. We know that what happens in the classrooms and faculty offices is what really matters on any college campus. But if you’re a president just passing through those buildings — on your way to teach an occasional class, visit a lab, or meet with a faculty member — you can’t fully experience the action.

And that’s what the flood waters have provided me, rather unexpectedly. My temporary headquarters inside a classroom building has turned into a great learning experience about the real action on our campus:

The pulse of classes. There is nothing more central to the heartbeat of a campus than hearing the voice of a skilled and familiar faculty member emanate from a classroom. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m., I listen as one such voice uses as much excitement as he can to help the reluctant, the tired, the stressed, and the cellphone-distracted dive into chemistry.

I knew the professor’s curriculum was innovative but now I know his pedagogy is equally interesting and creative. Day in and day out, it makes me want to walk into his classroom, sit down, and learn more.

I already knew about the professor’s research and service outside the classroom but regularly hearing him teach has me wondering: Do any of his students know much about the work that he and other professors do beyond their teaching? That makes me want to better communicate their efforts, especially as the public and the politicians question the value of faculty work.

The persistent guidance of adjuncts. We may not know our adjuncts well but, much like our full-timers, they care deeply and take the time to offer honest, tough, and supportive feedback to students. Walking to and from my temporary office I have regularly seen and heard part-time faculty members "meeting" after class with students in the hallway — to provide guidance and encouragement and to engage in challenging conversations about academic expectations, even when the first few attempts appear not to have had the desired effect.

It’s no surprise that few students know if their professor works part-time or full-time because nearly all of them provide exceptional attention and are dedicated to their students. But it’s clear to me that we don’t value our adjuncts sufficiently. For some time I have suggested that we should better communicate with, orient, and include adjuncts in professional development and other opportunities. We should also be listening to them and learning from what works for them as we consider how best to meet current challenges in higher education and to enhance student success.

The late-student perspective. To get into the classroom building housing my temporary space, I need my campus ID card. Sometimes I forget it, and have to wait for a student to let me in. Occasionally I encounter students who have also forgotten their IDs and rush to catch a closing door. I’ve watched them slip into their classrooms five or 10 minutes late, and it always looks so awkward for them.

It would have been so much easier for the late-comers to just skip class altogether — and admirably, they didn’t.

As professors we make all kinds of judgments about late students. Often they frustrate us, especially when they come up after class to ask: "Did I miss anything important?" But now I’m seeing this from the students’ perspective. Whenever I teach in the future, I’m going to make my default assumption that students have a good reason for being late, and I’m going to appreciate that they showed up.

The maintenance of the physical environment. I’ve noticed that some classrooms are very light and others very dark — sometimes on the same hallway. How does that affect people? Are we paying attention to the dramatic environmental differences from room to room, and the impact that has on learning?

I also quickly discovered that the cleaning in my temporary building is nowhere near the standard of Old Main. In fact, it’s below acceptable in some areas like the restrooms. The windows in my temporary office are dirty and the corners have old, large cobwebs that have gathered leaves and debris over time.

Maintaining a campus well is a challenge, but everyone, in every building, should feel respected and welcomed on our campus by clean and well-maintained spaces. This requires our attention. Everyone’s work area should be maintained as well as the president’s suite.

The need for gathering spaces. Students lack gathering spaces in this classroom building yet they do have to hang around there at times — in between classes or for meetings with professors. They tend to congregate wherever they can — except, for some reason, they avoid hanging out in empty classrooms.

As we renovate old buildings and build new ones, we need to make sure they include public gathering spaces. And, while there seems to be an unwritten "rule" to the contrary based on the behavior I’ve seen, we need to let students know that it is fine to gather in a classroom when it’s not in use.

The impact of the "boss" moving in. I try to get around the campus as much as I can, yet it’s not unusual for people to worry that something is wrong when they see me in their office area. One of the things I recognized right away when we moved into this building: It isn’t easy on faculty members to have the president, and other senior leaders, in their work space.

In our offices, where we spend as much time as we do at home, we reveal all the rhythms of our daily life — how much caffeine we require, what we bring for lunch routinely, and our "addictions" (mine is dark chocolate). People are kind and welcoming in our temporary space, but we are intruders and we need to tread as lightly as possible, recognizing that no one is completely comfortable when the boss moves in next door.

The buzz of the campus. My temporary office is a first-floor fishbowl with floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto the "quad." I like light and never pull down the shades so I get to see everything that’s happening: how many students have dogs and walk them multiple times a day; how warm it has to get before the Adirondack chairs and hammocks get used; how many students use certain nooks and crannies in the building to make personal phone calls that I wish I didn’t have to intrude upon as I walk by; how many squirrels have nuts buried on the other side of the window by my small meeting table.

There is a wonderful world of ongoing, buzzing activity that I miss from my regular second-floor office that looks out on a parking lot and dorms.

The best ways to go on the campus.When I teach a freshman seminar, the students are often surprised that those of us who work here don’t know all the best routes to get to every classroom or the best entrance to each building. But why would we if we stay on the same paths and come from (and usually go to) the same locations all the time?

Now when I have meetings I have to figure out how to walk there as if I’m brand new because I’m coming from a completely different orientation. I am seeing the campus from a fresh perspective — like a disoriented first-year student.

My temporary office is spare — photos, objects, and books are boxed, waiting for return to my permanent space — but I have a different view of our campus, our faculty, and our students than I get in Old Main. I wouldn’t want to move to a new office every year, but I appreciate the perspective I’ve gained from being displaced. And based on what I’ve seen, I know that we have some work to do.

If you’ve occupied the same office for years I don’t suggest a flood. But why not take up residence in another building temporarily? You may well discover all sorts of ways to improve the experience of living, learning, and working on your campus.

Julie E. Wollman is president of Widener University.

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