Our Finest Hour: The power of recognizing emerging values during a crisis

Fifty years ago we first heard the words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” during the Apollo 13 crisis. Many of us are looking at our industries and our world during the COVID-19 pandemic and feeling that same sentiment.

But I also remember another legendary line spoken by NASA flight director Gene Kranz during that same event in 1970. Upon assessing the enormous obstacles in bringing three astronauts safely back to Earth after an explosion aboard the lunar module, Kranz said, “This will be our finest hour.”

It’s hard to believe I’d only been in the Northwestern Michigan College president’s office for two and a half months when our leadership team made the unprecedented decision to shift all face-to-face learning to online in mid-March. This, of course, was followed by campus closures and shifting most employees to remote work, as so many area businesses also have done. And yet, in spite of the enormity of these challenges I can confidently say I believe our response to COVID-19 will be among our finest hours.

This response, in which NMC has prioritized the safety and well-being of students and employees while limiting the disruption to learning and maintaining its role as a strong community partner, is grounded in well-established NMC values. Framed and hanging on the walls of classrooms and offices, these include: agility, innovation, collaboration, valuing all people and responsible stewardship.

This action is exactly what I’ve seen in the following ways:

  • Faculty and staff came together and shifted classes online in just one week, singularly focused on helping our students work through this crisis.
  • NMC Marine Tech students and brother-sister duo Aaron and Bernadette Bottke began using a 3-D printer to make protective masks for Munson Medical Center.
  • Two alumni nurses paused their lives and careers in Michigan to go and work in New York City ICUs.


What I’ve also noticed, as I’ve participated in dozens of online meetings and made hundreds of phone calls to students, employees and the community partners, is a new set of emerging values. These include flexibility and adaptability, courageous creativity and compassion. Whether it’s finding a loaner laptop for a student who doesn’t have one or being an empathetic listener to an overwhelmed student, these values weave new threads into the strong, cohesive fabric of this college and community.

I expect that other leaders are making similar discoveries in their own workplaces. If not, I invite you to look for them. Crises, as Kranz put it so memorably, can bring out our best or worst selves. In northwest Michigan I’m proud and thrilled to be among a group leading with its best foot forward. We have been a member of Grand Traverse County’s Joint Operations Center daily meetings since they began on March 13. The level of cooperation and coordination between health, government, first responders, education, social service and business sectors has been incredible. Whether it’s donating much-needed supplies, offering our dorms for medical personnel or helping spread the word about our community’s response and resources, I am seeing firsthand what makes this community so special.

We don’t know yet what lies on the other side of this transformational period. Hand-in-hand with the life-threatening coronavirus pandemic we also must respond to an economic impact that will be felt more profoundly than any since the Great Depression. With hopes that the initial health crisis may be starting to level off, NMC is now also prioritizing the long-term sustainability of the institution so we can continue to serve the learners of this region for years to come. The dual impact of COVID-19 and its economic repercussions on enrollment could be significant. Therefore, we must reimagine our future, and how we can best align our structure to best meet the changing needs of our learners.

While our summer semester will look much like the second half of our spring semester, with online classes only, we are still planning several possibilities for fall. The further out we look, the more possibilities we will need as we at NMC, and likely many of you in your own businesses, cannot yet know what our world will look like and how we will need to adapt. What I am certain of, after working closely with our employees and our board of trustees to navigate the uncharted waters of the initial crisis, is we will be well-served if our forthcoming decisions are also guided by our values, both established and emerging.

This was not the beginning I anticipated when I started at NMC in January. But there’s no place I’d rather be than right here in northwest Michigan, helping to write the first draft of history for one of our finest hours. I know we can truly be what’s possible because I am seeing our students, employees and community partners demonstrate that in new ways every day. I am proud to be part of this college and community with you.

Nick Nissley, Ed.D., is president of Northwestern Michigan College.