Last Thursday I watched my colleagues in grief.
It was a professional development day, so classes were cancelled. Instead, there was an excellent schedule of events, including a brilliant keynote speaker, a thoughtful collection of workshops, and division and department meetings. It had the potential to be a day of growth and community.
But somewhere around the middle of the workshop I attended, I realized that I was watching my colleagues express all the stages of grief. I heard denial. I saw anger. I observed bargaining and depression. Occasionally, I even glimpsed a little acceptance. Different people were at different stages, but all the stages were present. And for the rest of the day, in formal meetings and in conversations in halls and offices, I spotted more and more examples of grief.
Compassion for my college and my colleagues came along with the recognition of the pain I was witnessing. And then I realized that they were grieving the loss of business as usual.
Under the pressures of the threat of losing accreditation, a new administration, decreased enrollment, new state regulations governing course repeatability, and a somewhat improved job market (which typically reduces demand for classes in community college), City College is experiencing more significant change than it has seen since at least the 1980s. Any change is hard and big changes are harder, so the grief is understandable.
But consider that for decades the college has essentially operated the same, with small tweaks here and there – sometimes improvements, sometimes not. The college’s enrollment management systems and business practices were decades old. The governance system and power dynamics – both formal and informal – have evolved to protect the status quo, to protect under-filled classes, outdated courses, and stale practices.
Of course, many, perhaps most of my colleagues are dedicated, hard-working professionals who put their students first and who innovate and evolve their practices to meet the changing needs of our students. And not all change is good. But the fact remains that my colleagues and I have become comfortable with an institution that is in many ways great, but also has many ways to improve — not least of which is to close achievement gaps at the college that are, if anything, widening.
I have compassion for all people in pain. I also recognize that some pain is constructive. Some pain is part of a necessary process to heal a wounded college. Hopefully, last Thursday’s communal display of grief was a step toward working through pain toward acceptance and a stronger institution in the future.