Repeat After Me: When It Happens on Our Campus, We Will Be Ready!

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One of the consequences of modern communications technology is that we know of so many more bad things that happen. We know about them when we previously would not; we know about them sooner; and we know about them in more detail than ever before. As the world "shrinks" and the population grows, more and more bad things happen too.

What kinds of bad things can happen on a campus? The list is endless, since many colleges and universities are the size of cities. And as many people pointed out in the last week, the kind of campus on which bad things absolutely could not happen would not be a campus on which many of us would like to learn or work.

There is some regional variation, due to climate and terrain, but every institution has a core list of things that could happen to it, and many have a list of things that already have happened to them. Not all of those bad things involve physical damage to the campus infrastructure, although that is often the primary focus of existing disaster plans. In the 2006 issue of Change magazine, authors Ian I. Mitroff, Michael A. Diamond, and C. Murat Alpaslan, of the University of Southern California, noted:
Hurricane Katrina and the September 11th terrorist attacks alerted university leaders and governing boards to the full danger of both natural and manmade disasters. Yet the lesson should not have been needed. Like their corporate counterparts, in recent years colleges and universities have been beset by a wide variety of crises that, although not as devastating as Katrina and 9/11, have seriously damaged their infrastructures, reputations, and prestige--for instance, the University of Colorado football scandal, the harassment of female cadets at the Air Force Academy, and the 1999 Texas A&M bonfire disaster that killed 12 students and injured 27 others. And then there are the widespread and perennial crises such as grade tampering; the alteration of key files and student records; computer hacking; major fires and explosions; student unrest; civil disturbances; confrontations, sometimes violent, between students of different political, religious, and ideological viewpoints; ethical breaches by top administrators, faculty, and students; the fraudulent use of tutors by student athletes; the stealing of body parts from university medical schools, and so on.
(SCUP website)
I think that we're beginning to get the message, and perhaps, given the latest such crisis took place on Monday, April 16, in Blacksburg, VA on the campus of Virginia Tech, we now understand that we need to be ready for the unthinkable. The campus suffered very little physical damage, but its people suffered tremendously. The terrible shootings that took place there are probably the greatest non-natural disaster ever to strike a college or a university.

Once the crisis happened, Virginia Tech's leadership did a masterful job of "the right thing." Coincidentally, a work project that I had been at for a year came to fruition. The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) published a simple monograph, "Lessons from the Front: The Presidential Role in Disaster Planning and Response." That monograph is now in the hands of every college and university president in the United States and soon will be available as a PDF on SCUP's website.

As far as I can tell from the outside, Virginia Techs president, Charles W. Steger, could have been reading from its pages, even though it was not yet published. I applaud president Steger and his administration for their response. Likewise, lacking the physical destruction of the campus, others in the VT administration were able to connect out with colleagues elsewhere and communicate in intelligent ways. The VT website The Higher Education Community Lends Its Support is only one such example.

Even Virginia Tech, though--such a powerhouse of information technology that in some of the early traffic graphics of the Internet, you could see Blacksburg as a major locus of that traffic--did not have in place the very latest communications technologies to warn people of the danger. Probably no place has, yet, but lots of places will soon. Even so, what is currently "the latest" is not perfect and is only a step to where we will be someday.

Some day, we'll be wearing our computer on campus, and an avatar will pop up in the corner of our eye and tell us that there is a crisis nearby and that we are in danger. It will offer us detailed instructions on what to do in order to be safest. How we will get permission from all of our students, faculty, staff, and visitors to notify them, how we will stay updated as to the most likely communications technology that will reach them, and the details of how we know their "address" without violating their privacy are not things we yet know how to do. But we will.

Meanwhile, I think the best thing that I can do in this column at this point in time is share some links to places and resources that might help you and others on your campus be prepared when the next crisis or disaster hits.
  • SCUP has a Web document available to all with general crisis and disaster management planning resources; and
  • SCUP also has a Web document where we are archiving news stories and other resources that might serve as a reservoir of information from which to derive lessons learned last week at Virginia Tech.
Significantly good discussions about the latest communications technologies for crisis notification have taken place on the following e-mail discussion lists and are generally available for learning purposes in Web archives:
Among the significantly useful resources shared on those lists recently are:
In today's world, bad things can and will happen to good people. There is nothing you or I can do to lessen the grief or replace the losses of people personally touched by the shootings in Blacksburg. But we can vow to not lose sight of the need to be ready to do what is needed to shut a crisis down and to mitigate the damage for our institutions and our people. Let's not wait until the next one to take the next few steps in that direction. Repeat after me: "The next time, we will be ready."
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