Seizing a Defining Moment at Keene State College

There are moments that are critical to seize for the better - for Keene State College, the riots that occurred during Keene Pumpkin Festival last year presented this challenge and opportunity.

My first two years in office have put a fine point on the most critical aspect of a presidency - being prepared to handle the unexpected with integrity, resilience and courage. This often means that you must face issues head on and sometimes without the benefit of time to consult with others. Sometimes you make difficult decisions that many do not favor, but that are necessary for the well-being of students and people who work at the college. As a leader, you must rely on your instincts and your values. Character is critical - you must be resilient and be secure in what guides your decisions. For me, student welfare guides my decisions.

In October of 2014, our small New England city and campus faced a crisis, and a year later, we continue to work through it. It made national and local headlines, repeatedly. On the weekend of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, many young people flooded Keene, New Hampshire apparently with one objective: to cause a mammoth disturbance marked by unruly, disruptive behavior, and riots ensued.

Many of the people involved in the riots had connections to our students, and many did not. Some of our own students participated in riots that occurred in the town. Most of our own students did not, and still they suffered the consequences in our community. The greater Keene community was traumatized, and the debate over whom to blame started early and dragged on for months.

This, I decided, was a defining moment for Keene State. It was the moment to catalyze the change I had been advocating for to benefit our campus, and the larger Keene community. It was long past time to take a hard look at our student culture. We knew that we needed to build on the many positive elements that currently exist at Keene State, and also take a tougher position when students violate our code of conduct.

Now, our staff works more closely with students to implement lasting programs that will bring the college and city together more regularly, sanctions for breaking the college's code of conduct are strictly enforced with greater consequences, our college counselors are engaged more than ever with students who need support, and as a college, we are continuing to find new ways to engage our students in the community, beyond the more than 100,000 hours of community service they already provide on a yearly basis.

Most importantly, we needed our students to stand up and be accountable to one another. Change was noticeable immediately following the riots - our students reached out to the community and became better citizens in the neighborhoods that surround the campus. Their challenge was to keep that momentum going, and a year later I am pleased to say that along with some significant policy changes, the efforts of our students to be good citizens continues even more strongly today.

So struck by their own efforts, I said the following to the class of 2014 at Commencement: "I want you to know how proud I am of the way you handled the unexpected this year. You stood up for yourselves and your true character prevailed in the face of adversity. And you did it with grace and humility. Rather than react with anger, you engaged in self-reflection and emerged with a renewed commitment to model your true character. You have demonstrated your resilience and while the process was painful at times, you are better for taking on the challenge and the difficult work of redefining a culture that truly reflects your character. In a way, you have modeled for the entire Keene community what can happen when you stand up, accept responsibility and work together to make change."

The kind of experience we had last October is not unique to Keene State College - it's a national issue. Campus party culture is a national issue. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost 60 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol during a one-month period in 2013. Yet, national issue or not, it is an issue here and we are dealing with it directly and in close partnership with the entire Keene community.

The bottom line is this: Today's college students are the future leaders of this country. When we seize defining moments to make improvements at our colleges, students benefit from the effort, and we all, in turn, benefit.