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The Carletonian

Hopeful words in a wrenching moment: Q&A with President Poskanzer


On March 12, 2020, President Steven Poskanzer announced that Carleton would be moving to remote instruction for the first half of Spring term, with the intention of reconvening on May 5 if the state of the pandemic allowed it. On Friday, April 10, Poskanzer announced that Carleton would continue with online learning for the remainder of the term. “We’re navigating our way through much that is unknown, but no one can doubt the necessity of prioritizing the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and neighbors,” wrote Poskanzer in the email announcement. 

Along with this announcement came the news that Commencement would not be held in June. For myriad reasons, seniors are acutely impacted by the loss of spring term. Senior spring is often anticipated as a time to cherish friends and revel in togetherness before walking across the commencement stage and transitioning into a new phase of life. Carleton intends to bring the Class of 2020 back together again sometime after campus is safely reopened.

Carleton’s decision to close campus and shift to online learning involved communication between many different groups, said Poskanzer. The Infectious Disease Team, made up of some 60 members across numerous offices, played a large role. The group, which has existed for years, usually meets about once a month. Once the coronavirus became a global issue, the group began having frequent conversations about its potential impact on Carleton, explained Poskanzer. In February, Natalee Johnson, Coordinator of Medical Services at SHAC, presented to the Tuesday Group (Pozkanzer’s cabinet of senior staff, college Deans, and the Faculty President) on behalf of the Infectious Disease Team. From there, the college assembled a “core team,” made up of select members from both the Infectious Disease Team and the Tuesday Group, to serve as a link between the two. This core team has met nearly every day since February, said Poskanzer. 

Three of the Carletonian’s senior staff members sat down with the president—over Zoom—to discuss how college leadership navigated such a decision, Poskanzer’s specific role, and the college’s plans for the future.

KG: Could you start with an overview of the basics? We’re all curious to know when the college first started talking about this, who all the parties are who are involved in making a decision like this, and what the hierarchy is in terms of how the final decision gets made. 

SP: There were lots of different waves of the decision. There was an initial decision about extending Spring Break and going to remote instruction for the first half of the term, and then there was a second major decision about what we would do for the second half of the term. But there were also endless waves of smaller decisions—or associated decisions—with each of those. There are many, many layers and an awful lot of people involved in making a decision like this. 

To make a decision of this type of import, we needed to pay attention to campus governance processes. When we were deciding whether or not to move the type of instruction we’d be doing, that involves faculty. So the president of the faculty consulted with the Education and Curriculum Committee, and he also consulted with the Faculty Affairs Committee. Then before we made a final decision to go with remote instruction for the first half, we also called an emergency meeting of the College Council to talk about it. Because we were in between meetings of the Board of Trustees, and we couldn’t wait for the next meeting, I also convened a special meeting of the executive committee of the Board. So all of those different groups, representing different constituencies of the college, had a role to play and an opportunity to offer input, or to tell us if they thought this was going in the wrong direction, or to confirm that we were going in the right direction.

KG: So, what would happen in terms of the decision-making if—say, at that College Council meeting, for some reason everybody on the Council vehemently disagreed with the decision. What exactly would the process look like then? 

SP: Well, you know, that’s never happened in the history of the College Council. So it’s probably not a terribly great hypothetical to play out. 

KG: [Laughs] Fair. 

SP: All said and done, the Board of Trustees has responsibility for everything that happens at the college. So you could have every single actor at the college—including me, the College Council, a unanimous faculty, a unanimous student body—disagreeing, but the Board of Trustees has the legal authority to do whatever they want to do. But, you know, that doesn’t happen either. As sad and as painful as these decisions were, this was not something that was profoundly controversial. 

SL: What sources of information did you rely on when making these decisions? 

SP: Endless sources of information—starting with the expertise that all of those people will bring to the table. The people on the Infectious Disease Team have a great deal of knowledge about infectious diseases and how they play out, the members of the Tuesday Group have a lot of knowledge and experience with managing crises at colleges and universities—but we were also in contact with the Minnesota Department of Health, the Rice County Health Department, and informally with people at Northfield Hospital. We were reading information reports coming out from the World Health Organization. 

There’s a whole secretariat of higher-education organizations that’s based in Washington D.C. There’s a group for private liberal-arts colleges, there’s a group for big land-grant public institutions—all of those groups together are part of the American Council on Education, and that umbrella group is issuing daily guidance and sharing information about what’s happening at other colleges and universities. And also informally, we’re constantly in contact with presidents at other universities. I had a phone call this morning with the president of Bowdoin, where he and I were just talking about how each of our schools were responding to this. 

We were probably a little bit more cautious than other schools, taking it step-by-step, which is how Carleton tends to make decisions. We hoped initially that this might go quickly, and May would come, and we’d be able to bring people back. But, obviously—you watch the same news that we do—it wouldn’t have been safe to bring people back. 

NS: We’re wondering how this ranks in terms of decisions you’ve had to make as president in the past. What kind of preparation did you have for facing a situation like this? 

SP: There’s a famous quote attributed to Eisenhower: “plans are worthless, and planning is invaluable.” I think there’s some truth to that. We have plans as a college for every conceivable contingency that you could imagine—floods, fires, electrical outages, pandemics. But things never play out the way they look like they’re going to in a plan. Over my years of being here, and also being a president at other institutions, I have sadly had to deal with all different kinds of emergencies—students deaths, floods, other medical crises, earthquakes. This is certainly unprecedented in terms of the scope—because of the global aspect of the pandemic, you’re less of an independent actor in making these decisions. Having been through a variety of other crises, I have certainly learned that a good way to make decisions in a crisis is to gather the right set of people in the room, to try to make sure you have a variety of different viewpoints, to make certain that you have a dynamic in the room where people feel free to question and challenge one another. 

And I would say that Carleton tends to be a little bit more deliberative, a little bit less knee-jerk than some other places may be on this. That’s kind of our nature—it’s probably my own nature as well. Part of my training is in law, and as you’re trained as a lawyer, you learn to weigh different possibilities and pay a lot of attention to the process by which you make those decisions. I’m sure on some level that personal part of my mindset comes to the table, and other people draw on that. or sometimes have to correct for that. 

KG: As college president, how do you see your role in the face of a crisis like this? Are you primarily a decision-maker, or in a PR, communication role, or someone who unifies and uplifts the community? 

SP: The easy answer is all of these, at different times. It’s like a jewel or gemstone—there are lots of different facets, and you have to play all those different roles. The role that is sort of the unifying theme, that I feel I should always play, is “kind.” I see my first role as the steward: the guardian of the college as a whole and the people in it, who are very much a part of that whole. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with a lot of other people. I always start in that steward role, but I play all those other roles too. The PR communication piece is never the driver of what you do. You make the decision that is right on the merits first. Then, you figure out once you’ve made the right decision, how best to explain that in a clear way, in an honest way, in a transparent way. 

I’ve consciously tried to strike, in a number of these communications, a more unifying, almost pastoral tone. Because this is a community and it’s about people, and there are real fears and feelings and anger and anxieties. A bloodless, bureaucratic communication A) wouldn’t be who I am, but B) wouldn’t be what Carleton is. It wouldn’t be helpful to people, and it wouldn’t help the college—and all of us who are part of it—get through this together.

NS: Your email mentions that you’re working with “class leadership” to bring the class of 2020 together in the future—who is considered part of this leadership?

SP: In previous years, the Alumni Affairs Office and Student Life together had assembled class committees. They were often involved in some senior week planning and in raising money for a senior gift. This year we weren’t going to do that in the same way. It’s not about senior gifts at all. It’s about bringing the class together. 

Basically the challenge, as I see it—but the three of you tell me if we got this wrong— is that, ordinarily as a senior at any college, but especially as a senior at Carleton, there’s kind of a rhythm and a flow and certain landmark events or moments that will be part of your senior year, and especially part of your senior spring. It’s your Comps presentation, receptions with your department, Honors Convocation, Spring Concert and Rotblatt, and a whole variety of things that seniors look forward to. You’re eager to be part of these events, which are preparing you for that moment of letting go that commencement is meant to signify. So there’s a psychologically healthy part of this. And now all that’s been upended, which is awful. I mean, it’s undeniably awful. 

So how do we recreate as much of that as we can? How do we give your class those sense of markers, of rites of passage, of being ready to let go, being ready to move on to the next step? And especially: how do we do that in a way that binds your class really tightly to each other? 

We will absolutely, unequivocally do some sort of formal awarding of degrees in June. But this goes way beyond that too. We certainly want you to help shape what would be most meaningful, because I don’t think the faculty, the administration, or whoever else would know well enough what would help you get to that good, right, ready place where we would have been under ordinary circumstances. 

SL: Do you have any last words of encouragement for the Carleton community?

SP: I know that this is a really wrenching moment, not just for each of us individually, but for our community as a whole. And one of the things that I love about Carleton, the thing that makes it the place that I’ve loved the most that I’ve ever been at, is the decency and kindness and the care for one another. That really is just woven into the DNA of this place. This school has more of that, and more trust and goodwill and ability to pull together, than any college or university that I’ve ever worked at, and we’ll draw upon those reservoirs right now. We will get through this, and we’ll get through this in a way that brings us closer together. 

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