President Antonio Pérez was on his way to the office at Borough of Manhattan Community College, when he was stopped by "a great ball of fire" — what he soon realized to be the aftermath of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center. After rushing to campus just a few blocks away from the event and executing with his staff a swift evacuation process, looking from his window, he witnessed the tragedy extend onto his campus. As the towers fell, debris rained onto and pummeled the institution's Fiterman hall.
In that moment, Pérez says he "wasn't sure how it happened," but as a leader, his reaction was natural. He knew that if he let the building out of his control, there would be a possibility it would taken over by federal agencies, and he might not able to reopen it. So, he stayed.
"I believe that a leader at times, when he is put in a situation where he has a responsibility, it's no longer about his own personal safety," said Pérez. "It's about what their responsibilities are and how to carry those out. And my responsibility was to stay with the building."
Pérez and his trusted staff members, among which include vice president of student affairs Dr. Marva Craig and vice president of administration and planning Scott Anderson, worked as pieces of a puzzle to make sure students, faculty, and campus assets would be taken care of.
They detail some of their experiences, as well as measures they took while the events unfolded — all answering the question, "What should leaders do to maintain their business when tragedy strikes?"
Put faith in trusted staff — micromanaging an emergency could be counterproductive
"Everything happened very quickly, very cataclysmically," recalls Anderson. As the campus operations manager, he and other leaders had already evacuated students from the main campus and from the building in question. But, "when the second strike hit, there was no doubt about it — we had to clear everyone out of the entire area."
Anderson was one of the few core figures that stayed on site, along with the president, other senior managers, a few engineers and some security guards. He recalls his personnel looking like ghosts, as they were completely covered in concrete dust — but also how forward thinking and trust-worthy they were as the events transpired.
"Without any prompting whatsoever, when the planes hit and the fire started, my engineers shut down all of the vents in the main building. That's an important thing to note; in fact, it's become standard operating procedure when any similar incident happens to prevent fumes from getting into the building," said Anderson.
"That became a very critical element for BMCC's survival and our ability to get up and running three weeks later. Now the other schools ... unfortunately they abandoned their properties and had to be completely decontaminated," he said. "Most of the schools couldn't re-open until February of 2002; we were able to open in three weeks."
Putting trust in his staff, says Anderson, is what helped the institution stay alive and open sooner than any other institution that was impacted. Similarly, President Pérez placed his trust in Anderson. While he was in his office every day calling colleagues and running the business, he entrusted his staff to take care of the on-site issues.
"He entrusted me to manage the staff and protect the facility. He never interfered with judgment calls, with resource allocation. He had tremendous trust in his staff — and that's extremely important," said Anderson. "Many times, people try to micromanage in an emergency. He did not."
"These are the things upper management needs to know. They have to value the people that are on the ground, running their plants. And unfortunately those people are behind the wall. But, they are extremely important when you are trying to get your operation in recovery mode after a disaster."
BMCC President Pérez recalls his experience with 9/11. Source: CUNYBMCC, Youtube.
Balancing being a business executive with being students' leader
The morning after the incident, President Pérez was told the college needed to close for a year. In that moment he said he was ready to fight for the institution and for his students to be able to come back to school, because as a role model on campus, he needed to "find a solution to the problem and remedy that would be advantageous to people that we are trying to serve."
"We kept our relationship with the fire fighters and the news people there. I remember approaching someone from CBS and offering them a better vantage point for filming," said Pérez. "He asked me what would it cost? I said no, all you need to do is communicate on behalf of our students that we are reopening. We needed a way of reaching the public."
Pérez says that he was concerned, both as a manager operating the business, and as students' point of information, that there would be an impression the institution wouldn't be reopening. So he crafted tactics to ensure that people were aware they would do everything they could to get things up and running.
At the time BMCC had about 17,000 students; Pérez said his faculty made more than ten thousand phone calls of encouragement to these students and brought in trailers to try to get classes going as soon as possible. After convincing the mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, to let the campus reopen, the institution welcomed back all students and only had to extend the semester a little into Christmas holiday.
"There isn't much difference between an educational institution and a business, because in essence we all depend upon our customers to operate. So, not reopening would have been devastating," said Pérez. "But I wasn't looking at it from a profit and loss. I was looking at it more from the standpoint of, 'how do we gauge success.'"
"And our success is success for our students. They are our customers; if we had closed the doors, then the consequences are societal. We have individuals that made sacrifices to get an education, and we need to be able to provide that for them [...] I believe that has a greater impact than profit or loss, because you're impacting peoples' lives, whose futures depended upon our building reopening."
And in terms of advice for others in his position, Pérez says that anticipation is the key quality of a good campus and business leader. He began to look at all of the potential scenarios and how he might better prepare, crafting exit strategies for each response. He said the administration is now more cognizant, after 9/11, of how quickly to initiate disaster management. And as a result, they were ready when Sandy hit — for instance, moving major computer systems from basements and bottom floors to higher floor levels so they wouldn't get flooded. This type of anticipation is key in business, he explains, when meeting the needs of customers.
"We try to determine who are our customers, what do they want, and what are they like, so that we can respond and find a way to reach them," said Pérez. "I think its critical businesses are projecting, and forecasting with regard to their customer and delivery of their products..."
Making sure students feel welcomed back is critical — and may even boost enrollment
Dr. Marva Craig remembers meeting her colleagues back on campus and immediately coming to a consensus that administrators would continue to operate and work to communicate with students, faculty and staff. She said students were so happy to receive phone calls, and that "the college was thinking about them even though it was closed."
"When the students came back we did T-shirts, and we did our brochures. We even went to the subways!" Craig said she realized that students weren't very familiar with the complicated downtown public transportation lines, especially as a lot of pathways were closed in the aftermath. "We had people wearing T-shirts and holding signs up on sticks at the different subways, letting people know that 'we are BMCC.' As the students approached, we'd give them brochures tell them where to go," said Craig.
"It was a confusing time, because the directions we usually gave were 'Walk toward the World Trade Center.' And, there was no WTC to walk towards."
Overall, she says, the students were happy that administrators were organized in welcoming them coming back and they had a good experience with BMCC and the planning. Beyond offering ample information on where to go and how to get to class, she said campus managers made sure that we there was counseling for students, talks on understanding and valuing diversity, sessions on healing and grieving. They also made sure that as they had memorials for victims, as well as the eight students who perished in the attacks, that all religions were represented, so that students could sense that the college really cared about them.
"We were certainly very sensitive to students who were of the Muslim faith, because at the time, many people thought it was about the religion and not about the people who did the attacks," said Craig. "Our international students and undocumented students were also going through a hard time; one of the things we know is that they felt very comfortable here, and the college became somewhat of a safe space for them."
At the same time, Craig says the institution wanted to make sure it was giving students options. So if they didn't want to come back to the college, they could change their registration and get a full refund. Some people went back to their countries and wanted to get far away from the college, so they extended the cancelation policy for a long time. They allowed students figure out how they wanted to transition or return to campus.
But in reality, says Anderson, not that many students were steered away from the institution. In fact, they were so satisfied with the administrations' efforts at reaching out and reopening, that enrollment increased.
"The following semester in January of 2002, our enrollment went up to around 17,100 students. Before it was around 16,600. In fact, it was the first time our spring enrollment was higher than our fall," says Anderson. "I think it was a powerful message BMCC was sending out: "We're here and we're not going anywhere."
Craig said this came from students believing we "rebuilt an institution for me that wasn't here before, because you care about my learning and me wanting to be here."