by Hailey Terracino
President Eric M. Friedman sat down with the Torch to discuss his background, his transition during a pandemic, and his plans for the future of Bergen.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I was born and raised on Long Island in New York. I attended the public school system in my town in Nassau County. Growing up in the 60s in the 70s, there were a lot of alternative thoughts about how to do public school education, and I benefitted from that. I participated in one program in which attending the actual classroom session was optional. That was bizarre for public school students. We had accountability. I ended up going out to college in Denver, Colorado. I went to the University of Denver and was able to do it with a partial scholarship. I’ve worked throughout my time in college, but I was the first in my family to graduate from college.
Q: I saw that you have degrees in sociology and humanities and social thought. How do you think having that knowledge has helped you as a president?
A: Sociology helps us to understand how people act and react and interact with each other. It helps us to understand the dynamics of organizations and how people exist in organizations and how institutions are structured. Social thought gives us the ability to think about options, and to think about the things and structures that exist, but what other ways could we be doing things, what other ways can we be organizing work, social activity, and cultural and social institutions. Being an English major and doing graduate work in social thought and sociology is powerful for somebody that’s going to be a leader of an educational institution.
Q: What has been your experience like transferring to Bergen during COVID?
A: It is challenging in a number of different ways. There are some silver linings because I do get to have the benefit of doing some walk-throughs, but some of the challenges are obviously establishing relationships. We don’t realize how important is to be in a room with people to develop relationships, to have actual human contact that’s not mediated by a screen. It also gives me a number of budgetary and financial challenges that are very urgent and are a very high priority now. I’ve come in with a lot of ideas and am extremely mindful of the impact that COVID is having on enrollment and our budget and our finances. We’ve also pivoted to all virtual instruction and remote instruction and that sets up a number of challenges with our IT infrastructure. We have to continuously train students and faculty members on best practices in remote learning, and online learning. It shows us a number of lessons about places where we need to be more technological, more flexible, more adaptable to the realities of 21st-century life.
Q: How has being at Bergen been different from the other colleges you’ve been at?
A: Bergen Community College has a very particular culture and one of the things that I can tell you for sure is that part of the culture is to focus on excellence. It might be excellence in teaching in our STEM division, it might be excellence in how we provide library services. I see people all around the college really focused on seeing what’s having an impact, assessing their work, doing interventions when needed to make something that’s not working really well be better. What’s also different is it’s so geographically large, There are so many townships and high school districts. I think the culture here is one of creativity in how we put together events, whether they’re for internal or external audiences.
Q: I know you’ve been doing a listening tour, what are some things that you’ve been able to gather from that?
A: People’s immense pride in the accomplishments in their area and the accomplishments of their students and what their students go on to do after Bergen. There’s an incredibly wide portfolio of certificates and degree programs and cultural offerings continuing ed offerings. One thing that I’m hearing during the listening tour is a desire for there to be more visibility on successes for students that have gone through a particular program or department. More visibility on our programs or events, something that people in the wider community can see on a more frequent basis. I’m also hearing about university and high school partners who want to expand what they’re doing with us.
Q: What, in your opinion, do you think students could expect from the upcoming fall semester? Do you see a possibility of being on campus?
A: I think we’re going to have a wide range of options. The possibility of being on campus is being tied to vaccination rates and our partners at the county department of health services are giving us this message pretty clearly. I know we’re going to have more than we have now. This is something that’s changing daily and weekly. Will we have a lot of hybrid classes versus fully on the ground? Maybe part of the class is in the classroom socially distant. Classes are going to be alternating the students who are in class in week one and then the next. I’m looking to expand our Interactive TV, which is the evolved form of WebEx. I think you’ll see much more of a mix in the fall than in the summer because the summer is approaching rapidly.
Q: What kind of ideas do you plan on implementing at Bergen?
A: One thing that is just taking shape is an economic recovery committee. We’re going to have broad representation on the committee. They will be charged with questions like what forms of strategic partnerships do we need to have, or if we have them, do we need to expand with our business and industry partners? This is going to be an extremely important committee because community colleges play an absolutely central role in economic recovery. I’m seeing the need for a real focus on the Center for Online Learning. I have some ideas and vision around that and I think that we need to do some real thinking about how to make the best use of our Meadowlands and Hackensack campuses. I think that we constantly need to be asking ourselves are we providing the services we need to fulfill student’s basic needs and are we doing it in a holistic way? Is the food pantry enough, are our mental health counseling services enough? We still have students who aren’t being served in that area. We have a real opportunity for expanding.