After a shooting spree at Michigan State University last week left three students dead and five critically injured, campus leaders had some major responsibilities: help their community process grief and regain a sense of safety on campus, facilitate a return to the classroom, communicate new developments to the public, and examine what could be done to improve campus security. It’s a set of duties that has become familiar to the leaders of other institutions that have experienced tragedies on and around their campuses, especially in an era when mass shootings take place almost every day.
On Sunday, Michigan State’s interim president, interim provost, and chief of police answered questions from The Chronicle about how they see their roles in the midst of this tragedy and the kinds of support they have received from other college leaders. They also discussed the return to the classroom and measures they’re taking to improve campus safety. The interim president, Teresa K. Woodruff, and interim provost, Thomas D. Jeitschko, ascended to those posts last fall after the president at the time, Samuel L. Stanley, resigned amid a dispute with the Board of Trustees. Woodruff was the provost at the time, and Jeitschko was the senior associate provost.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As you know, a portion of our audience is other leaders. If the unthinkable happens, as it did in this case, what should they expect? How can they learn from Michigan State’s experience?
Teresa K. Woodruff, interim president: Well, I wish no leader or no person ever has to stand in front of that bank of microphones, ever. It’s a circumstance that one never wishes to be there. And I hope no one is. As I think about the last however many hours we’ve been going through this, I believe we’ve tried to link arms, to make sure that everybody is staying closer. Sometimes the instinct is to pull apart. But I think leadership asks us to link arms to come together.
For many students, one of the worst parts about this tragedy is that Michigan State’s campus used to be a sanctuary, a place that they felt safe. And some students have told me that it no longer feels that way. How do you restore students, staff, and faculty’s sense of comfort on campus?
Woodruff: Today we had … about 20,000 people across campus. And as you went around this beautiful campus, people were coming back into the community, and one of our graduate students organized a grass-roots effort to bring people into the heart of the campus. Basically, it was a moment to say, “We’re taking our campus back. This is our campus. This is who we are.”
It is natural that we all have a sense of unsettledness. The unsettledness, I think, can be warded off by being together. So it is that linking arms again, that bringing together, that coming together. I don’t think it happens all at once, but I think it happens by steps and by measures of being together. And in that way, I think we’ll take back our campus.
I want to talk a little bit about the “No Media” signs. Students and others have complained about journalists’ invading their privacy. How are you dealing as a campus with the intense media scrutiny?
Woodruff: I’ve talked directly to some of the media, and in fact with our students. Our student-body president asked me about the invasiveness of the media. Emily Guerrant [vice president and university spokesperson] immediately launched into action, and we have buttons for students to be able to wear. I directly talked with some of our media folks who were being very invasive, and students yesterday talked with me about how their privacy and their moments of grief were really being interrupted.
And we’ve thanked the media. I thanked the media directly for their work, particularly as they were the ones that released the image of the individual involved in this case [the gunman]. And very quickly, we were able to identify and complete, and that ending took place. And there is a role for our media. But I think what we need is care and compassion from everyone to know that these are students who are regaining their lives. These are faculty who are beginning to think about how to teach in this context. And these are employees. I think the emotions of grief that sometimes are repeated over and over on the media — that’s not the message. We’re trying to help all of our community by having that symbol that says, “Maybe I respect the media, but media is not for me today.”
How have the leaders of other colleges provided their support? Do you have any examples?
The academy comes together to grieve, but also to support.
Woodruff: Sadly, it’s a club. The mayor of Highland Park [the Illinois town where a mass shooting last year killed seven people and injured dozens] was the first to reach out to me, Nancy Rotering … When she was going through the issues in Highland Park, she is part of a group of mayors who have developed a number of resources that have also been adopted in higher ed. Nancy is one that I really appreciated in those early moments when she was giving me advice … she was seeing into my future, and that was helpful.
The presidents of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech have been very helpful, as have been many of the folks on their staffs, with senior executives across Michigan State. They’ve been very generous reaching out, but I would say we’ve had — I think it’s not hyperbole to say — hundreds, if not a thousand, leaders from literally across the AAU [Association of American Universities], of course the Big Ten, but across all of higher education reach out, not just here but around the globe. The academy comes together to grieve, but also to support.
What advice did the mayor of Highland Park give you?
Woodruff: The first piece of advice she said is that anger comes later. When you first step to the podium, compassion, followed by anger. Anger will come, but make it about compassion first.
Did you take into account what other universities that have experienced violence on campus did in terms of resuming classes? What informed this decision?
Thomas D. Jeitschko, interim provost: We talked to some mental-health experts in these areas. We actually invited someone who was an expert in how to teach the day after any type of traumatic event, who provided tremendous resources. We’ve collected a lot of other resources as well, to support faculty and others to try to figure out how to manage this. I got outreach from the University of Virginia provost, and he connected me with other people, so we were able to make connections across the academic side with counterparts, and they provided a write-up of things we should consider. I spoke extensively also to the provost at the University of Idaho.
Both of them actually said that many students — and that’s also the experience we have here — really were feeling strong, they want to come back, they want to be in this community. There are others that have strong trepidation around that and are worried about it — partly, I think, because they think this would just be a resumption of normal, and pushing aside everything, and trying to force the issue of moving forward, which I think is a perception, and I hope that that will have been cleared up.
That’s what I heard when I wrote a story about this issue. And some of the learning researchers I talked to said that there’s a concern that being alone could foster some worse mental-health impacts. Is that part of the thinking?
Jeitschko: I think that’s generally true, and I think it’s in our almost immediate post-Covid aftermath especially true. One of our associate provosts, the associate provost for undergraduate education, has shared that there have been some parents that had reached out who said, “Earlier this week, our students were in lockdown for four hours, and that was very traumatic. You cannot put them in lockdown for the next weeks. They have to come back.”
That’s an interesting comparison. What do you tell students or faculty members who say they’re traumatized to come back to the classroom?
Jeitschko: I’ve had conversations and email exchanges with individual students, and have been able to allay their fears, and they are more comfortable now. I have a faculty member who has just reached out that I will respond to them. One thing that we said is we understand that everybody is in their own individual pace around this, and if there are extenuating circumstances, we will work with them individually, what their needs are. In a community this large with a shooting this dramatic and brutal, there will be some for whom coming back might not be an option for a while, and we will work around that. And there might be some faculty members who are also affected in this manner.
There’s been some conversation about students not feeling safe on such an open or public campus. Are there moves to close it off at all? What is the thinking around those issues?
Marlon C. Lynch, chief of police: We are a large public university — 400-plus buildings, 5,200 acres. And we don’t have gates and walls and fences. That’s just not who we are. We’re a destination for not just our Spartan community, but the neighboring communities and the state of Michigan. And so we’re welcoming in that sense. I don’t foresee us closing off campus. What I think we will do — what I know that we will do because we’ve already begun the process of establishing communication with our community — [is] to step through what we want to do together. How do we want our culture and who we are to be impacted, knowing that we have to do something differently?
We initiated in the fall centralizing our security systems that will allow police and public safety to monitor all the security systems on campus from one location and operations center. That will then allow us to have real-time monitoring of those systems as well. That’s one component to that. The other piece to it is that we’re actually completing an RFP [request for proposals] process for new platforms for access-control management as well as video-management systems. That will be done in March. That will give us some additional capabilities with building-access options and how you manage it. We have several different types of buildings on campus: residence halls, a union, classroom buildings, research facilities. So there’s not one approach for every single building.