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Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy and blame at Virginia Tech...

Before I comment on the events at Virginia Tech today, let me tell you a little bit about my day before I became aware of those horrendous events.

For several days now, those of us in the New England area have been subject to a barrage of warnings about the nor'easter heading our way on Monday (today). The storm did in fact start as predicted on Sunday, and by all indications we would wake up to significant rainfall and winds by early this morning. Because I commute to the University of New Hampshire campus, I got up a little bit before 5 a.m. and checked the storm warnings notice on the campus site. There was no indication of any closures or (as they put it) "curtailed operations". Bundling up, I headed out the door and had a very interesting drive to Durham, but made it there without incident until entering the town itself where I ran into a couple of detours. I parked my car, walked to my office and settled in by a little after 7 a.m.. Over the next two hours I prepared for my 9 a.m. class and, quite surprisingly, had a pretty good turnout despite the blustery conditions. I suspect most of the students who attended live on or very near campus, and there were several apologetic e-mail's when I got back to my office from students who could not circumvent the weather.

While all this was happening, street flooding continued around Durham and roads in and out of campus were blocked off as conditions worsened. By 9:45 a.m. (while I chattered away in class) the decision was made to cancel all classes for the rest of the day, and by 10:15 a.m. word had spread to every classroom and not a student was to be found who did not know the status. Those of us who had to leave for home did so. Luckily my route out was unencumbered, although I did watch one bridge flood over in my rear view mirror after I had passed its low point....

I bring this up because I find the story of what took place on the Virginia Tech campus this morning unfathomable. University campuses like UNH or Princeton or the University of Kansas or any of the other self-contained grounds that I've been associated with are very much like Virginia Tech's. There are access roads in and out of campus, and these roads can easily and very quickly be monitored and blocked within moments. This is done frequently during the course of a winter storm or other exceptional weather events. Campuses can be closed down on a moment's notice, and word spreads like wildfire even among those "in transit".

From what we now know about the sequence of events that took place at Virginia Tech, the campus police and administration knew by at least 8 a.m. (if not earlier) they had a double homicide on campus with no suspect in custody. That is what they "knew", but what they "assumed" was that a suspect had left campus and that (therefore) there was no danger to the rest of the campus community. Rather then doing what they would do in a snowstorm or other weather emergency (which, it should be said, are more common than double homicides!) -- that is, close off campus access and close down or curtail campus operations -- these folks made assumptions that increased the vulnerability of the student body on campus.

A sympathetic as I usually am to the tough dilemmas facing decision-makers in administrative positions, this was clearly a wrong call.

The argument that they operated on the basis of what they knew does not hold water, for what they say they "knew" is actually what they "assumed" to know.

The argument that they could not have taken effective action in a short time to both secure campus access and cancel classes is also without merit given the experience and capacity of similar campuses.

In short, the arguments they offer to not rise to a level sufficient to relieve them of culpability in this tragedy, and it is not unreasonable to speculate a different outcome -- fewer lives put at risk and lost -- would have resulted from different assumptions.

What makes things worse is the effort made by some university officials -- especially Virginia Tech's president and police chief -- to offer explanations and excuses in response to the pointed questions from reporters that implied irresponsible decisions on their part. A basic lesson I've drawn in my work on public sector management is that all modern administrators operate in cultures of blameworthiness, and they must learn to deal with the conditions that creates. The moment you assume a position of responsibility -- whether as university president or chief of police -- you accept the role of being blameworthy whether or not you are actually worthy of blame.

Perhaps the worse thing you can do in such a situation is to attempt to offer explanations or excuses, especially when conditions are in flux and you're facing a frenzied crowd. Matters are far far worse, of course, when it is clear that your actions (or inactions) have really contributed to the errors that led to tragedy....

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