Administration botches Ebola scare

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Cartoon by Dan Cordero

Cartoon by Dan Cordero

Southwestern College is infected, but it is not with Ebola.

Our college is plagued with an inconsistent and incapable administration.

Frankly, we are sick of it.

During the now infamous Southwestern College Ebola scare of October 16, there was a nearly fatal communication breakdown that started at the top. At a time when we needed a leader, we got President Dr. Melinda Nish. Usually professional and poised, she turned to jello, then melted under pressure. As press conferences were held throughout the day, she only spoke a few words, providing lackluster information, ultimately serving as MC for Police Chief Michael Cash to the media.

As the face of SWC, her presence – more accurately, her lack thereof – was  damaging to the college’s image. We understand the stressful nature of the situation. There was panic. Those people, however, are not the leaders of our college.  On Oct. 16, no one was. As Nish stood with arms crossed behind Cash, her credibility dribbled away like a melting popsicle.

Despite questionable performances in previous situations, Cash actually came through as the college’s knight in shining armor. After investigation, he slayed the beast of a story that the student concocted and was calm, collected and reassuring to a crowd that needed comforting. This earthquake of an event sent tremors through the campus, community and nation. His words were heard through broadcasts and read in articles across the country. Nish should take note.

At 7:58 p.m., Public Information Officer Lillian Leopold sent a summary of the day’s events via email. Buried in the update, in the very last sentence, is our leadership’s view on safety.

“The safety of our students, staff and college community are paramount,” the statement read.

We are unimpressed. Moreover, we are worried.

SWC’s crisis communication was a circus. Emails, safety alerts and social media posts by the college were a juggling act by amateur clowns and they dropped the ball. Conflicting, inaccurate updates stoked mistrust and fear. Those being held in the quarantined area were at the mercy of information they received from the school and rumors carelessly tossed around.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Kathy Tyner sent an email around 10:30 a.m. that said that the County Department of Health (CDH) had been called and was en route to come and assess the situation. CDH professionals, however, had not been contacted at the time of the email. They learned of the SWC situation from the news. Students being held in quarantine were told by Tyner and campus police that they would be able to leave once the CDH arrived and could examine them. These quarantined students and faculty were lied to. Their safety was potentially at risk, but college officials did not take the time to get their facts straight. College administrators took long enough to release information, the least they could do was check it for accuracy.

We are not cynical enough to believe they had malicious intentions. We do not think they were purposely blasting out conflicting information. But it is not about what their intent was, it is the fact that the situation was botched. When it comes down to it, 364 days of comfortably performing their jobs means nothing if they cannot handle the one day of chaos.

Although Cash was collected, some of his team performed disgracefully. Loose-lipped, flippant campus police officers created hysteria by telling students that Ebola was on our campus, that a very sick girl had vomited three times and that the Center for Disease Control was flying in from Atlanta. All complete B.S.

And thank God it was B.S. If there had been an infectious disease on our campus, our men in blue would have set it loose on our district’s population of 400,000. One officer putting up caution tape told students that it would be best to leave, if they did not want to be quarantined. He actually waved a group through as if he were telling them to sneak into a baseball game or concert.

Most of the local news media handled the situation poorly and in some cases even jeopardized safety by passing on unsubstantiated rumors. Students that were held in the quarantined zone said that they felt the local media was abrasive and that some, at least five, walked into the quarantined zone, then left. Again, we can thank our lucky stars there was not a dangerous infectious disease.

We are very, very concerned that our administration is spinning this. Many of the bunglers have said they think they handled it pretty well. Please tell us you are joking. Had this been a real emergency it would have been an unmitigated disaster. People would have died, possibly lots of people.

This could be seen as a major blessing in disguise. We are embarrassed, but alive. Our administrators who are famously cocky and shun self-examination need to take a look at this without the rosy glasses and realize they dodged a bullet. Next time we may not be so lucky.

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