BU President addresses past, COVID-19 decisions, harassment allegations and more
President Hanna’s words trembled as he painted the picture of the bullying he suffered after immigrating to the United States. From simple beginnings to now, Dr. Hanna has faced an array of challenges that have affected how he leads the university and his life.
Hanna – a father of two, husband, president, and professor to many – is inarguably successful. He has worked his way up the corporate ladder to become the 19th president of Bloomsburg University. Although respected, he is also criticized by many for past events that have left a deep scar on how others perceive him.
On Thursday, Oct. 8, president Hanna called into a Zoom session for an open conversation. He was straightforward and at times emotional and vulnerable.
The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Being someone who was born in Syria and immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, have you faced any forms of discrimination?
My family and I moved here when I was entering fifth grade at the age of 10. I did not speak a word of English when I started fifth grade. I was called every word you can imagine. Everything from the stupid kid who doesn’t know how to ask to go to the bathroom to camel jockey, camel rider, sand master. At one point in school, I had somebody put sand in my locker. The worst of all stays with me to this day. I was called multiple times sand, the second word is the N-word and you can finish that for yourself. I will tell you the first few years in this country I had many nights of just crying myself to sleep. Why did we leave our homeland? I spoke the language. I was the number one student in my class. My parents are wiser than I will ever be, and they kept saying to me the opportunities that will come will be the reason you will look back at this and you will be far stronger. My words even shake when I talk about this. Parents know nothing when you are 12, 13, you don’t have friends and you basically are relying on surviving one day at a time. But I learned two things through that entire experience. One, you have to have conviction in that you are who you are. God created me as an Arab American or an American Arab. I can’t change who I am. There was a time in my life where I actually wouldn’t say where I came from because I was too afraid. And I regret that, because you should never ever have to be less than proud of who you are and what you are. But the second thing I learned was really what I carry with me today, is to try to give voice to the voiceless. I didn’t have a voice. I was the only student in my entire elementary school that had just moved from Syria. My parents moved me and enrolled in a Catholic high school because of the lack of safety as they perceived it. But I make sure that I recognize the pain and hurt I carry that with me every day. And that’s why when our students of color came to me and wanted to protest last year, I didn’t try to stop them. I basically protested with them because I know what it’s like to have your heart and soul ripped out because of bigotry. It’s still around us. It’s still in our society. It’s probably worse today than it was a few years back. But I think the important thing is that if we don’t lean on each other and if we don’t open our minds and listen to each other, tomorrow is bleak. That’s what I hope we do together.
What hobbies do you have? What do you do in your free time?
Being president doesn’t leave a lot of time. I cherish spending time watching my children participate in athletics. My son is a senior in college, and he runs track and cross country. Every opportunity I have, prior to this year, to drive to Virginia to watch him run, I took that opportunity. My daughter is a senior in high school and also plays soccer and basketball. Every opportunity I get when she’s not traveling out of state with her soccer club, I go watch her play. So, my wife and I basically have dedicated our lives to our children. I used to be a pretty decent soccer player when I was 50 lbs. lighter and a lot faster. So that’s basically what I spend my free time doing. If you ask me a hobby, which is the craziest thing in the world, I love landscaping. It’s the hardest thing I do but I also find it really therapeutic. So, on the weekends I’ll do a little bit of toiling with the landscaping around the garden.
How would you characterize your college experience during your undergrad?
Amazing. Best four years of my life. I went to a high school that had one African-American and five Latino students and I arrived at Temple University and the first thing you notice is the richness of the diversity. I learned more by making friends who weren’t biology majors, who weren’t Caucasian, who weren’t from the Middle East. To this day, I’m close with students I met during undergrad who on paper have nothing in common with me. But I think when you are marginalized yourself, and I was very marginalized when we moved here, you almost seek out those that are possibly marginalized as well. There’s comfort in that.
How would you describe BU’s current relationship with the town? What are you personally doing to improve relations?
The best way I can describe it is that it is a work in progress. We have a lot to do. We cannot stop because of a lack of openness in the past. I think our community is our community. I don’t think anybody expects Bloomsburg University tomorrow to move to an urban setting where there is more diversity. However, I do think we as the higher-end entity in the county and in the region need to recognize that we have to educate, and we have to call [racism and discrimination] out. You can’t create awareness around something that you are not talking about. This past summer, I participated in a couple of town hall meetings with the coalition for social justice in accounting with the mayor and chief of police. We heard from students and community members alike about their experiences in town. It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking but I am hopeful that what we need to do is make sure we are creating a coalition. The coalition doesn’t start with the folks who are senior citizens and I’m going to say that bluntly and I’m probably going to offend somebody. The coalition starts with those that are going to be college students in the coming years who are going to be the future leaders of this region or this country. One of our students of color made a suggestion that I think is probably genius. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. Having our students of color and multicultural students visit elementary schools in the area when in session to really begin talking about a society that might look a little different than what they’re experiencing in that elementary school preparing them for the world. If they leave after high school and go to college or get a job, they are going to have classmates or colleagues who speak differently who have a different accent. In my case, may not even speak the language. If we don’t learn early on how we can be adaptive and learn from each other and appreciate each other’s differences, I think waiting till somebody is 40, 50 or 60, I believe we may have missed the boat. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to open those people’s minds and hearts, but I think [the discussion] does need to start far younger than I think where we’ve targeted our focus.
If you could go back and change any of the administrative decisions with COVID-19 would you change anything?
Every plan we put together when you look back at it in hindsight is always 20/20. I think the two most important things I’d like to share with you is that every plan we shared with our stakeholders was based on the best available guidance and information at the time. We share with the stakeholders that due to the nature of this virus we have to be nimble, we have to pivot, almost at a moment’s notice. The CDC guidelines were changing. The state Department of Health guidelines were changing. The county guidelines were changing. So, I would say to you, the plans were created with the best available data at the time. Certainly, pivoting was not fun for our students or faculty and staff, but I made the decision based on the number of cases that we were experiencing. The safety of the students, faculty and staff was the most critical and highest priority for us. We’re not the only school that pivoted. The University of Notre Dame that has a trillion-dollar endowment and every resource in the world had to pivot, as did the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These are just two examples of schools that had every intention of providing the best on-campus experience for their students as we did. In hindsight, we can go back and question everything, but I think at the time we created a plan based on the data and that was grounded in the best experience we can deliver for students.
What are one or two significant challenges you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
Wow, one or two? Do you have time for six or seven? I can probably think of two really transformative difficult moments in my life. The first one was in 1999. My wife was expecting our first child and I had just been made assistant associate dean of the College of Science and Technology at Temple University. My wife delivered our son and we were basically building the College of Science and Technology from ground zero at Temple University. I was working 16- to 20-hour days and almost not getting a chance to support my wife and be there for our newborn son. The six months between Jan. 31 of 1999 and July of 1999 was a chapter of my life where I had to do a lot of soul-searching and reflecting on life’s priorities. It took probably more courage than I thought. I had to go in and speak with the dean who is an incredibly gifted scholar. I explained to him the stress that the work-life balance was placing on my family. You sometimes expect the worst and realize the best. The dean said to me never doubt for a minute that your family comes first, we will find ways to figure out what needs to be done but never ever fail to support your family. That was really almost that moment of recognition for me. I was 31 years old, I was an associate dean, that I could be the best professional X, you can put whatever word you want to put after professional, if I’m remembered as a bad father and an ineffective husband, I have really done nothing in this world. So, that was one of those moments where you are reminded of what’s important in life. Fast forward, everybody has challenges throughout their life and in their career. When I arrived at Bloomsburg University, due to some unfortunate circumstances, I was accused of something that I never in my wildest dreams would have ever dreamt to have been accused of. To be accused of sexual harassment is something that is incredibly draining. Draining to the point where you begin to question everything from who you can and can’t talk to, who you can trust not trust. You begin to do a lot of soul-searching of what you could have done differently what you could have done or said that could have been misconstrued. You almost go through this dissection of your being. I will tell you, I’m both grateful and thankful, after a comprehensive investigation, I was cleared of the sexual harassment charge. But it’s a scar and it’s a scar that many will say remains with you for the rest of your life. I carry it with me. I learned from it. But ultimately, I was incredibly fortunate to have people who have known me for decades who know who I am, what my moral compass is and what my character and integrity are composed of. Without those people’s support, I’m not sure I would have survived that chapter. So, those would be two examples that come to mind as having been profoundly impactful on who I am.
A petition recently gained traction for your resignation over your handling of the COVID-19 crisis but mainly due to the alleged harassment allegations against you. Do you have any comments or reactions to this petition?
I already spoke about the difficult chapter in my career and in my personal life regarding harassment and I was cleared of all harassment charges. I think it’s important for me as the leader of this university and my team to focus on making the students’ lives better. I wake up every morning with one goal to make sure that you succeed in whatever endeavor you decide to carry on at this university, not just academically. Everybody has the right to put out a petition. Anybody could accuse anybody of anything. I will tell you our focus remains steadfast on creating an environment for our students that is exemplary, but also inclusive and equitable. We have a long way to go on inclusive and equitable and that’s what we’re going to focus on together.
How do you plan to strengthen your relationship with the BU community after the allegations?
Every morning since the day that I was made aware of the harassment accusation, I wake up every morning wanting to be the best person I can be. It’s important to point out that my moral, ethical compass, my integrity up until that moment were never ever, ever questioned. I’ve been approachable. I’ve been accessible to our students. I teach a class every fall for freshman students at the university because I want to be in absolute. I want them to experience what it’s like to be taught by the president. I want to make sure our faculty realize that I’m willing to teach so that I know exactly what they’re going through in the classroom. I hope I’m not oversimplifying this; I don’t think my relationship with our students has been adversely impacted but I will spend every ounce of energy in my body to continue to do what I’ve done from the day I got here, which is basically focused on them and their success in making a Bloomsburg education accessible to them so that they could walk across that stage and be proud of the degree they earned.
You previously left several universities through mutual agreements; however, some previous coworkers have described you as a ‘bully’ and there is a belief you were pushed out of those positions, how would you describe your exit from those institutions?
Let me comment on the word “bully” first, if I may. As you climb the corporate ladder for lack of a better word, you’re going to ruffle people’s feathers because there are things that need to get done. Could I have been gentler, could I have been softer, absolutely. Those are the lessons you learn as you go through life. The exit from the universities, and I think you’re speaking of Kutztown and Delaware Valley University, you get to a point where you realize that if the fit is not working if the alignment is not working, it’s best for everybody for a person to leave. When I left, I will cautiously say that I left the institutions better than I found them. So, I’m proud of the progress. Like I said earlier, could I have been softer and gentler, absolutely. And again, those are the lessons you learn throughout life and you carry with you as you move forward.
According to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Before arriving at Bloomsburg, Hanna had been quietly pushed out of two other Pennsylvania universities after being accused of mistreating employees, women in particular. Some former colleagues have called Hanna a ‘bully’ whose treatment left them ill from anxiety.”
How would you describe your leadership style? What are one or two things that you have encountered that have influenced this style?
I would say inclusive and consultative but decisive. I always believe and I would hope that the team I’ve assembled around here at Bloom would confirm this, that I always want to listen to everybody’s input before a final decision is made. But ultimately when a decision is made the buck stops here. I need to be convinced and I need to have the courage to say this is my decision. I never ever throw my team under the bus no matter what wrong comes out of a decision. I own it, I will always own it, and I would consider that courageous leadership. I think that you go through life observing lots of things. Sometimes observing what you never want to do as a leader is as effective as observing somebody who’s a phenomenal leader and you want to do everything she or he does. I see that in the lens of being a perpetual student. I think maybe that’s why I picked this profession. I learn more from our students when I talk to them about leadership, about empathy, about feelings, about what they carry with them every day. I mean more than half of our student body works at least 20 hours a week and still are full-time students. You know if that’s not leadership, if that’s not balancing multiple things, I’m not sure what is. So, I would say that moment with my dean where he said to me family first is a moment that will always stay with me. This probably comes from left field; I had a mentor that was a Catholic priest at my high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He always said to me, make sure the main thing is always the main thing. And as a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, you shake your head and say what is this crazy man talking about. Fast forward, to my first year at Bloomsburg, he came and actually provided the invocation, the prayer for my inauguration and he repeated those lines. And it never dawned on me, 35 years later it never dawned on me that what he is saying is make sure you’re focusing on the important things in life and don’t get caught up in the things that are noise. But don’t ignore the noise because sometimes there are lessons learned from the noise.
With recent talks of integration with Lock Haven and Mansfield what does the future look like for BU and what role will you have?
I actually think the future of BU is bright. Whether integration moves forward or not, the data will tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. I see opportunities that are really incredibly synergetic with Lock Haven and Mansfield and we are going to talk about those opportunities in a task force in the next several months. And we’ll let the data guide us as to where we land. I have been both fortunate and honored that the chancellor has asked me to lead the integration conversation with Mansfield and Lock Haven. And I am honored and fortunate to say that, it’s not just me, it’s the team here at Bloomsburg that is really highly thought of by the chancellor’s office. So, we will do this together.
BU is in the early stages of exploring the possibility of collaborating with Lock Haven and Mansfield as a part of a redesign of the state system.
“So while one of the goals of the integration plan will be to share services and academic programs across schools, which will pare down staffing and administration, growth also will be a goal, he said,” according to an article from the Press Enterprise with Chancellor Greenstein.
Are you on board with the direction the chancellor seems to be taking with the state system?
That’s probably the most profound question other than what pitfalls you had in life. I give the chancellor a lot of credit, in that the state system is in serious fiscal distress. And it’s been in serious fiscal distress for more than a decade. And this should have been paid attention to years and years ago. Chancellor Dan Greenstein has had the courage and the perseverance to tackle it and to try to address it probably for the first time since the system was created. You can’t help but respect that. You can’t help but want to be a part of that because I think that if we ignore it students like you in 10 to 15 years may not have a state’s system to attend. But by addressing it today, I think we guarantee or assure the future of this state system for many generations to come so that bright students can come and get a respected degree at an affordable price. And I think those are the two main focuses that the chancellor is embracing, and I am fully supportive of making sure that we provide a preeminent education at an affordable price so that the state system can still be a leader in higher ed.
According to an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, “But factors including an ongoing decline in high school graduates also continue to be pressure points, he said. The 96,000-student system has lost more than 20% of its enrollment since 2010 and is in the middle of a redesign.”
How has your background as an educator shaped your actions as president?
I think I mentioned earlier that anyone who goes into education goes into education for a couple of reasons. For me, I went into education because I had teachers who even in the days that I didn’t speak a word of English, never gave up on me. And also, never allowed me to give up on myself. So, I carry that with me every day. And any difference I make, especially when I was teaching full-time any difference, I make in the life of a student I see that as both honoring the legacy of my teachers and mentors but also a responsibility that they have instilled in me. So fast forward even to the presidency, I still look every day at how I can make a difference in the lives of our students and make them the best version of themselves before they leave this institution. When you leave, you are a representative of this University. We want to make sure that when you leave, you’re proud of the education you received and two, that you’re poised to soar wherever you go. So, I bring the classroom into every meeting, every conversation. Every time I run into a student, the first thing I ask them is how are classes going. Because we can be an NCAA championship football team which is really important but if our students aren’t doing what well in the classroom it won’t matter. You come to college to earn a degree. So, I carry that with me every minute of every day. I also try to learn from our students and listen to their difficulties. When we hit the pandemic and had to go online for the rest of the spring semester, we knew a lot of our students had financial issues. We went to our donors, to our alumni and we asked for money. We got about a quarter-million dollars, every penny of which has been given to students that had distress so that they can hopefully continue with their education and not interrupt it due to this pandemic. So being an educator has shaped every part of my being except when my children tell me to leave the professor in the office when I go home.