From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2011
Daily life at Goucher College, like anywhere, is occasionally interrupted by unforeseen events and circumstances, and one can never be sure what will happen. We had one such moment in January of this year, and I'd like to think we handled it in a manner consistent with that old self-help bromide: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." The incident turned into a classic example of how bad events can have positive consequences, so I have a feel-good story to tell.
Here's what happened: In the early evening of the last Sunday in January, just a few days after classes had resumed for the spring semester, lights mysteriously began to flicker in various buildings. Upon investigation, a campus electrician discovered sparks and smoke coming from a manhole near the Haebler Chapel and found that the manhole cover had blown off.
Thankfully, no one was injured. The immediate crisis passed, but it soon became clear that because of damage to underground cables, there was no electricity-or heat-in Dorsey Center, the Meyerhoff Arts Center, Kraushaar Auditorium, or the chapel. Before long, a blown fuse took out the Decker Sports and Recreation Center and the Van Borries Pool as well. Not good, especially in the midst of a severe mid-Atlantic regional cold snap.
"We may have a situation for tomorrow morning," read the understated subject line on an e-mail sent by Tom Phizacklea, chief financial officer, at 10 that evening to Kate Pipkin, vice president for communications, and me. If evidence were needed that no one who helps manage a college is ever quite off-duty, that night provided it. Before long, the e-mails were flying: Marc Roy, the provost, notifying faculty with offices or classrooms in the affected buildings of the disruption they could expect in the morning; Debbie Lupton, director of human resources, brainstorming ways that the staff could continue to work; Bill Leimbach, vice president for technology and planning, pointing out that there are plenty of computer terminals in the Mikulski Information Commons of the Athenaeum where people could set themselves up; Phizacklea, assuring us all that Harold Tinsley, director of Facilities Management Services, would be on duty at 6:30 a.m. to assess the situation; and Pipkin, at almost midnight, sending out an "e2Campus alert" to students and everyone else that Monday might be rather complicated. In fact, the whole week was.
During the five-day disruption, Goucher truly rose to the occasion. Early on Monday, people from all across campus began to converge on the Athenaeum. Nancy Magnuson, college librarian, and her staff could not have been more welcoming. Later in the week, when all 163 residents of Mary Fisher Hall were turned out of their rooms at 8 one morning, because the power had to be shut down there while repairs were made, Bon Appétit, our campus food service, set up impromptu food stations in the hallways of the Athenaeum.
I'm still not sure exactly how it all got organized, but computers turned up where they were needed, and phone extensions appeared in what are usually group-study rooms, heightening my appreciation for the mysterious powers of Goucher's Information Technology department. The admissions, registrar's, and billing offices were thrown together in a computer classroom; one heard far more laughs than complaints, and they had great snacks for visitors. Not a single application got neglected, and emissaries ventured back to Dorsey from time to time in their overcoats to await any lost visitors by the light of battery-powered lanterns. The Communications Office took over the Batza Room, and I spotted Traci Martin, director of the Career Development Office, on a computer work station, elbow-to-elbow with students writing papers. Janet Wiley, vice president for development and alumnae/i affairs, conferred with staff members at a little table in one of the balcony alcoves overlooking the Hyman Forum.
And so it went. As far as I can tell, Gail Edmonds, the dean of students, and Michael O'Leary, vice president for enrollment management, rode circuit, taking up issues literally as they found them. Laurie Burton-Graham, our general counsel, and her colleague, Barbara Stob, lawyered on the run. When classes were officially canceled on Thursday (the same day of the week that had already been hit by prior snow- and ice-induced closings or late starts), enterprising faculty members improvised or simply communicated with their students online while new cables were being installed. Alice's Restaurant, meanwhile, was jammed. And in the Forum, at various times there was a study-abroad fair, club rush, and some capoeira dancing.
As for me, I was diverted early in the week by meetings in Washington, DC, for our Landmark Athletic Conference and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. But then I set myself up in the Kurtz Seminar Room on the fourth level of the library stacks, just off the Fisher-Compton Stairway, where I worked in a kind of commune with Leimbach, Phizacklea, and Wendy Belzer Litzke, vice president for government and community relations. It may not have been the most productive week of the year for any of us, but it was full of spontaneous, enlightening encounters for students, faculty, and staff. The whole week was like a second opening of the Athenaeum-a winter festival that we never could have planned.
So what is the moral of the story? That a power outage can be fun? Not exactly. Perhaps it is that compared to what many people in the world have to put up with in their daily lives, our little "crisis" was quite minor. That people too numerous to mention here performed magnificently. And that Goucher is an even greater, more adaptive community than we knew.