NMC Board of Trustees Election

October 9, 2020

compiled by Kathryn DePauw
Editor in Chief

   On Nov. 3, voters will decide the next Board of Trustees for NMC. Three positions are open, with seven candidates running for six-year terms. Two seats are being vacated by Ross Childs and Janie McNabb, with Rachel Johnson up for reelection. Six of the seven candidates took the time to address three of the most pressing issues to NMC students.

   Candidate Dan Lathrop did not respond in time for publication.

Vincent Cornellier

Lawrence Johnson

Rachel Johnson

Laura Oblinger

James Perra

Kenneth Warner

In regards to safety and financial support, do you believe the institution’s response to COVID has been adequate for both students and faculty? What role does the college play in community recovery?

Vincent Cornellier: I have been initially impressed with NMC’s response to the pandemic by offering four different tracks of instruction and the Faculty’s willingness to adapt.

Lawrence Johnson: Yes, due to the severity of the pandemic, I believe that NMC’s response to COVID has been appropriate and necessary. The college should encourage interactions with the community to convey current medical advice and safety measures.

Rachel Johnson: I am very proud of the College’s response to the pandemic. We’ve provided resources for our faculty to adapt their curriculum to online learning. Our careful stewardship of College finances put us in a position to hold tuition flat for our students at a time when most other colleges passed significant tuition rate increases. In addition, we distributed over $2 million of CARES Act funding to students to help them meet their immediate needs and maintain their momentum at NMC despite economic uncertainty.
Our diligence in enacting public health and safety best practices has proven successful. Despite several students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, public health officials have indicated a very low chance that any infection spread through the College. At this point in the pandemic, I think that is the best we could strive for and that we should be very proud of our students, staff, and administration for their response to this crisis.
   NMC will be vital to our community’s recovery. First, we can leverage the Futures for Frontliners program to provide a tuition-free pathway for our essential workers who don’t have a college degree. Equipping our frontline employees with technical certificates and degrees will put them on a path to new career opportunities. Second, we can provide a safe learning pathway to help our students continue their momentum toward their degrees, those who intend to transfer or who have transferred back home temporarily in response to COVID. Third, we should continue to work closely with our community partners to help fill any talent gaps that might prevent our local businesses from surviving the COVID crisis.

Laura Oblinger: With the information I have available to me to offer an opinion on this, I do believe the college’s leadership has made appropriate decisions in response to COVID-19 for the safety of its learners and those delivering it. The reaction was swift and appropriate for the level of severity the pandemic has had. It is one thing to make the decisions needed and another to execute in a seamless and non-panicked manner and it is just this that I witnessed during these unprecedented times. As it relates to the financial support needed in response to Covid-19, as the college leaders were putting into place safety measures, I witnessed the Foundation leadership quickly pivot its communications and efforts to plea for its struggling students – with success of additional donations to help support those that lost jobs and were having to make decisions between food and tuition. The care for NMC’s students during this time, financially and emotionally, was genuine. I am proud of how the pandemic was quickly, seamlessly and effectively addressed by President Nissley and all the leaders involved.
   The college plays a critical role in the recovery for our community because the moves it makes could have a positive or negative impact on [the] region’s population. It can utilize this time to show its strength as a lead organization in our community – it is a visible organization and should use this visibility to set examples.

James Perra: In terms of safety and financial support, NMC’s COVID response seems to have been robust so far. Resources such as the food pantry augmented by CARES money seem to meet needs adequately. Furthermore, the cases of COVID related to NMC are stories of assertive containment. Of course, it is the unfortunate case that we will be responding to COVID for more than enough time to evaluate the plan as implemented and make tweaks around the edges. NMC can help foster recovery both by modeling strong and compassionate guidelines that make good choices (quarantine, reporting, etc.) as painless as possible, and by assisting students whose programs may [have] been affected by the COVID pandemic.

Kenneth Warner: By way of background, I spent 45 years as a professor in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, including six years as Dean. As such, I am very familiar with the issues created by COVID-19. My familiarity with the college’s response to COVID derives from two sources: a briefing on the subject by President Nissley this summer during a Zoom meeting for members of the President’s Club and reading the information on the NMC website, especially the Exposure Control Plan (ECP).
   I am impressed with the college’s process for dealing with the pandemic and with the resulting decisions and policies. The ECP is a model that should be followed by all organizations. The safety measures are all necessary and appropriate. If followed by all students, faculty and staff, and visitors to campus, they should ensure the highest possible level of safety. They incorporate all of the evidence-based measures needed to minimize transition [sic] of the virus. That does not mean that infections will not occur. Some may. But with the procedures in place and with effective contact tracing (working with the county health department), the likelihood of a significant outbreak on campus should be small. (Again, this assumes compliance by all parties on campus.)
   In particular, I commend the college for deciding to focus on distance learning to the extent possible. (Some educational activities necessitate in-person classes or labs.) All educational institutions have struggled with how to proceed. Some universities decided to go with regular on-campus teaching and have had to move online after significant outbreaks of COVID. NMC is following precisely the plan I would have recommended: rely on distance learning to the extent possible, implement strict safety measures in classrooms and labs where the subject matter requires in-person education, and employ a mixed or hybrid model where some, but not all, education requires in-person classwork.
The safety measures should protect all students, faculty, and staff. I cannot comment knowledgably on financial support for students as it relates to COVID.
   Regarding the college’s role in community recovery, as one of the community’s most important organizations, I believe the college should be, first and foremost, a role model for appropriate safety measures. As I noted above, NMC is doing a first-rate job in this capacity. Second, as the community’s center of higher education, I would like to see NMC’s scientists and health professionals advising community groups as to how best to proceed while the threat of significant outbreaks remains. Those of us with some expertise who have tangential connections to the college should be doing the same. For example, I am on the board of the International Affairs Forum (IAF, housed in NMC) and have been advising the Forum’s leadership about keeping our programs online for the foreseeable future.

While the health crisis has necessitated a shift to online learning, how do you think the college should move forward after the crisis is over? Do you believe that much of the newly virtual courses should stay or will you support a refocusing on in-person instruction?

Vincent Cornellier: I do believe in the power of “Face to face” instruction and the importance of direct social contact among students so I eagerly support a resumption of the old normal when it is safe. A careful evaluation of the four models used will yield valuable information regarding not only educational outcomes but potential financial impacts for the future.

Lawrence Johnson: I believe that once we are past the current crisis, the college should return its focus to in-person instruction.  Some online instruction could remain where it is advantageous to students requiring flexible schedules.

Rachel Johnson: I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. Our pivot to online learning has prompted the development of new pedagogical tools. I anticipate that our faculty will want to continue to use some of those tools moving forward. In the long run, I think we need to learn from this experience and get better because of it. We have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine the systems and models we use to deliver education. The good news is, we have a long history of innovation and excellent faculty and staff. I have no doubt that the classroom formats we offer after COVID will be cutting edge, experiential, and highly effective.

Laura Oblinger: Moving forward, I believe college leaders need to analyze what changes were made related to virtual learning and determine what changes were something we should sustain. Possibly, there were adjustments that may have turned out for the better and warrant permanency. I will support a return to in-person learning, continued virtual, or a mixture – whatever is determined [to be] the safest for all involved and based on the scientific data available.

James Perra: The rapid adoption of online tools for education has and will continue to provide a wealth of innovations improving digitally augmented learning. However, it can be easy to overlook the intangible benefits of in-person learning and I am concerned that, for reasons of convenience and cost savings, there may continue to be an over-reliance on online options once they are no longer a health safety tool. A college education includes experiencing working relationships with a diverse array of people, creating skills in cultural competency and the ability to see circumstances from different points of view. Many of those experiences happen in the “in-between spaces” that are very hard to replicate over a video conference.

Kenneth Warner: In early September, speaking with the Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, I expected to hear a litany of problems about adjusting to COVID. Instead, she focused on some positives. She said that she and her colleagues were learning about opportunities to enhance the efficiency of the school’s operations and, in some instances, improve the quality of its education in the future. In a similar vein, while all of us involved with IAF were deeply disappointed at first that we had to go completely online, we have realized some significant advantages – not as a replacement for the in-person experience but as a complement. For example, we had a program on the refugee crisis (including the issue of COVID in refugee camps) that involved staff in two different camps in Lesvos, Greece, as well as an individual here in Traverse City. That fascinating program came to us from multiple sites, including the two camps in Greece. We could never do that without an online component. More recently, our first program of the 2020-21 season, an interview about pandemics with one of the world’s leading global health experts, Dr. Julio Frenk, would not have been possible in our normal in-person venue (Milliken Auditorium in Dennos). We had tried to get him to come here previously but he could never find the 2–3 days he would have had to leave his post as President of the University of Miami. I hope that in the “new normal” post-COVID era, IAF will utilize both modalities – some programs in-person, some online, and, perhaps many, utilizing both.
   We can’t tell today how NMC’s education will evolve in the future, but I would be surprised and disappointed if the college did not take advantage of the opportunities created by today’s communications technologies. (Of course the college has been utilizing online education for years through the University Center, a marvelous opportunity for many students.) That is not to suggest that in-person education will be a thing of the past. Having taught for years at Michigan, mostly in-person classes but with some distance learning experience, I think there is no substitute for the face-to-face experience. But online resources and connections can enhance the conventional classroom too. Consider, for example, “flipped” classes: Students watch a recorded lecture online and then come to class ready to engage directly with the instructor in small-group activities and conversations. The future of educational programming, at NMC and everywhere, should not be an “either-or” situation – either in-person instruction or distance learning – but rather both.

The current faculty Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2022. What do you believe the priorities should be and how can the bargaining process be made smoother?

Vincent Cornellier: As a Trustee, I would probably not be directly involved in labor negotiations but as a former educator myself, I would support all efforts to promote fairness and show appreciation for our dedicated faculty.

Lawrence Johnson: However the process goes forward in 2022, the central emphasis should be focused on present and future needs of the students. I have engaged in collective bargaining over the years from the point of view of management. The issues are usually volatile with strong feelings on both sides, and with ample rationale from each perspective. While I stick by my reluctance to be more specific in light of the recent collective bargaining negotiations, my overall philosophy is that issues that impact the students should be of prime importance, with their success and well-being of the highest consideration. After all, without the students, what is the point?

Rachel Johnson: The priorities will likely be driven by the trends we see in education and enrollment over the next few years as our model evolves post-pandemic. When the time comes, my hope is that we can negotiate a contract that keeps learning at the center and protects the interests of the students, the faculty, and the taxpayers. If we rely on our shared value system and shared goals, I am confident the bargaining process will be successful.

Laura Oblinger: It is difficult to judge past experiences and processes for the bargaining process when I don’t have all the relevant information at hand and was not tangibly involved. Regardless, it will be my concern that all parties are treated with respect, treated fairly, and with empathy. To create a positive experience, I believe all parties need equal and relevant data, a give and take from both sides will be critical to genuinely believe the process is fair, attitudes must remain positive and dialogue should be consistent. I will work hard to be certain these traits are carried out during the critical phase of bargaining agreements.

James Perra: While I admit to being unfamiliar with the collective bargaining process at NMC, as a proud former union IAFF paramedic I would suggest that smoothness of process is not an end in and of itself. The process of creating the best collective agreement for all involved requires getting everything on the table, and then often breaking pieces down even further to find creative ways to offer compensation and benefits packages that attract excellent instructional and support talent, while being good stewards of tuition, tax, and donated funds.

Kenneth Warner: Ensuring a positive work environment for faculty (and staff) is crucial to maximizing students’ experience at NMC, the latter being the essential purpose of the college. Yet, as in all of life, NMC must live within a budget. The friction that often arises during collective bargaining negotiations reflects that fundamental truth. I cannot comment knowledgably about what the priorities should be in the 2022 negotiations, nor how the bargaining process can be made smoother. I have no experience with the NMC faculty Collective Bargaining Agreement. Further, I believe that the negotiations should transpire between the faculty and the administration, with the Board of Trustees providing guidance only to the extent that it is requested by the parties, if requested at all. This – as with so much else – is something about which I will learn if I have the good fortune to be elected to the Board.

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