Last spring was a doozy, to say the least. The pandemic hit in March, forcing thousands of college students in the State of New York to work the remainder of their semesters remotely—and seniors, to graduate via Zoom. With no students on campus for a spell and pundits calling into question the value of higher education-via-iPad, colleges took a financial beating. It would’ve been a difficult time for any administrator to navigate on any campus. Add in social justice protests, many of which spilled onto campuses, and a polarizing presidential election in November, and you had nothing short of an academic powder keg. For Marc C. Conner, the chaos also marked his few months on the job as president of Skidmore College.
Conner, a native of Tacoma, WA, was first hired as an assistant professor of English at Virginia’s Washington & Lee University in 1996, where he’d work for the next two plus decades, rising to the post of provost and chief academic officer by 2016. Last year, he packed up and moved north to Skidmore in time for his first day on July 1, 2020. The following month would not only be the beginning of Conner’s first academic year as a first-time college president, but also his and his wife’s first as empty nesters (Conner and his wife, Barbara, who met in junior high school and married in 1989, had just sent their youngest of three sons to the University of Richmond).
Despite all of the personal and worldwide upheaval, Conner hit the ground running as soon as he arrived on campus, unveiling a mission that spoke directly to his strengths and the times. A longtime advocate for on-campus diversity and inclusion and founder of Washington & Lee’s African American Studies program, Conner quickly implemented a yearlong Presidential Initiative for Racial Justice that, to date, has established a Board of Trustees Committee on Diversity; has overseen the hiring of two new diversity-related positions; and brought speakers, workshops and bias training sessions to campus. “I was not going to arrive and say we needed a year of listening before we took action,” Conner says. “I said, ‘In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—where we’re at in the summer of 2020—we’re going to put our effort into action steps, things that will make a palpable, noticeable difference in our community now.’”
Of course, Conner was doing all this while simultaneously preparing the college to reopen following the initial statewide lockdown. Safely reopening for in-person instruction required a lot of creativity. (For example, the college set up nine outdoor tents in which professors could hold socially distanced classes.) And it wasn’t cheap; to date, Skidmore has also spent more than $3 million on COVID testing alone.
Seemingly against all odds, though, Skidmore managed to pull off an academic year that had some semblance of normality, at least for those students who chose to return to campus. And it did so without too many setbacks: Between August and May, the college administered 80,000 COVID tests that resulted in just 94 positives.
While COVID certainly taught Conner and the Skidmore faculty what a successful virtual model looked like, it also reinforced how important the college’s in-person, hands-on learning model has been. “[If you’re going to] a small college, it’s all about community,” says Conner. “We need to get off of these screens and be able to sit across from each other. That’s going to be wonderful.”