Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Case Study

When I did my Masters in Higher Education Administration, we used case studies to come up with solutions to problems facing colleges. Were our solutions similar, worse, or better than what actually occurred?

The shooting at Virginia Tech is about to become a case study in crisis management and response. In the coming days and weeks, there will be alot of criticism and analysis of the school's actions following the first shooting. People always say "you didn't do enough" in hindsight.

What is "enough?"

If you are an administrator at a time like this, there is NOTHING you can do to win (I don't mean win like the Sharks did last night - boo). Nothing. You are screwed no matter what you do. It is too much; it isn't enough. You aren't giving enough information. You are talking too much. If the university had cancelled classes and no further incident took place, there would have been hissy fits that the administration over-reacted. I guarantee it.

A large number of students commute to the campus and probably don't check their email first thing when they get up so they may not have gotten anything sent before 9:30am, approximate time of the email notifying students of the dorm shooting.

It took time to get the RA's up and moving. They went from door to door in the dorms, encouraging people to stay inside and away from windows. When the first shooting happened, they had no indication that a second spree would take place. I believe they focused their attention properly: on the dorms to keep those people safe.

Now, when did the university and police know the male victim in the room was not the shooter (assuming they thought murder/suicide and he shot her then himself)? That is where some quibbling can come in. I read one article that said witnesses at the scene told them the shooter fled the scene.

If they knew, say, at 8:30 that the shooter was loose and didn't do something at that point, then there is some room for questioning the school's response. I'm not sure what could have been done - I think it might have been a logistics nightmare to get security/police in all buildings. As the Vol Abroad noted in the NiT comments, college campus are porous. People come in and out from a variety of places. It would be nearly impossible to lock it completely down.

Virginia Tech is a large campus. I can't imagine what it would take to get something like that to happen at Vanderbilt given its size. Perhaps the email should have gone out earlier to cancel classes given they knew the shooter was at large.

The next question about warning signs will be what did the university do for the student in an attempt to prevent this. Well, a school can have the best counselors and psychological assistance programs in the world and if the student doesn't voluntarily walk through the door for assistance, there is nothing that we in administration can do.

Or are you going to suggest we force people go in for treatment?


People think living/working on a college campus is a safe environment. It isn't. Everything that happens in the wider world happens here. Incidents on campus are magnified because of that perception. Several years ago, an expelled student shot the Dean and others at Appalachia State University. An angry parent called and threatened me several weeks ago. It was serious enough that I called security in anticipation of his arrival to carry it out. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to carry on campus or else I could defend myself against such threats. Fortunately, he did not fly down to "take care of things."


I originally had a long rant about why the foreign press is involved and why it is none of their business, but I took that out mainly because I still don't care for the French. And Iran condemning the shootings like it was our own government that did it? Yeah. Whatever. I could also go on and on about gun control, but other people can argue that better than I can so I will stay out of it.


bridgett has some excellent thoughts about the stress of being on campus/in school in April. And I'm guessing the same bridgett has more spot on comments at Kat's blog on depression among foreign students. I would take her assessment of professional programs (engineering, etc) one step further to say that colleges should look at them long and hard as well as the surrounding support systems.

A friend of mine from undergrad was a physics major. She hated the program but loved what she was studying. There was no support - do or die culture. It isn't about the feminization of the hard sciences. If we expect the university to act as in loco parentis (in place of the parents) then make sure students are fully aware of ALL services available to them - not just when the Muncie Mart is open.

Give faculty, RA's, TA's, and staff that have regular student contact (not all staff positions deal with students) training on how to recognize depression and the appropriate information to help direct students to treatment. Full blown courses on psychology aren't necessary. We don't need to get into the business of treatment. A couple of hours spent in a meeting with the Director of Campus Counseling ought to be enough so that we as staff know what to look for in the students we work with on a daily basis. In defense of my own place of employment, we do have such a talk each fall during faculty orientation.

Given the size of the programs at many schools and lack of training for faculty and staff in recognizing warning signs of depression, it is an absolute wonder more incidents like what happened at Virginia Tech don't happen more often. Thank God they don't.

Vox Day is also correct in either one of his post or somewhere in the comments thread about what happened that the live coverage of the shooting and for days on end will be nothing more than violence porn.