President Casteen Photo by Peggy Harrison
As students, faculty, and other members of our University family prepare for the beginning of the fall semester, our memories of the mass murder at Virginia Tech last spring remain vivid: televised images of police officers swarming the Blacksburg campus; details of the massacre emerging in bits and pieces; grief and disbelief mounting as the immensity of the tragedy slowly took shape. As well as we all know them now, the facts still confound us: a student with a history of mental illness was able to purchase two semiautomatic handguns as well as more than 200 rounds of ammunition designed solely for use against humans, and use these tools of death to kill 32 innocent persons, wound dozens more, and end his own life in the largest mass murder ever perpetuated by a single person in American history.
On the day after the shootings, Rector Tom Farrell and his wife, Anne Garland; student council president Lauren Tilton; Engineering Dean Jim Aylor; Betsy; and I attended the convocation in Blacksburg. We sat on stadium bleachers with Virginia Tech students and faculty members as they and we participated in a ceremony that was at the same time somber and assertive of life. That night in Charlottesville, students, faculty, staff members, and I gathered in the McIntire Amphitheater for a candlelight vigil to honor the lives of those killed and injured and to express support for colleagues and friends at Tech. We are close to Virginia Tech in many ways. The ties that bind us together are strong. Our faculty members enjoy friendships and productive collaborations with colleagues at Virginia Tech. Several who died in Blacksburg—a sister, a parent, former high school classmates, and others—had family connections here.
With many others, we are working to understand what happened and to attempt to forefend future incidents of this kind. The day after the murders, Virginia Tech president Charles Steger asked Governor Kaine to appoint an independent review panel to examine all aspects of the massacre. Dr. Marcus Martin, an emergency-medicine physician and interim assistant vice president in the University’s Office of Diversity and Equity, is serving on the panel. The panel’s purpose is to understand the causes of the Tech massacre and to put in place safeguards to reduce the chances of a recurrence. Both the Governor and the panel chair, Colonel Gerald Massengill, have said that they would like the panel to issue its report by the time the fall semester begins. Virginia Tech is conducting its own internal review, which includes examination of the university’s telecommunications infrastructure, its physical infrastructure as it relates to safety and security, and its protocols for disseminating information. Tech hopes to issue its report by the end of August.
These murders have perhaps forever altered our sense of what forms of physical security are necessary on college campuses. At the University, we are reviewing our emergency procedures and initiating new plans and policies to ensure the safety and security of our students and employees. Some of these initiatives were planned prior to April 16; some are newly developed. We are establishing a permanent emergency-management office, and completing the search for its director. We are overhauling procedures for immediate cancellation of classes and for closing the University to all but essential personnel in the event of catastrophe. In-service training for faculty, student-affairs staff, and others on laws regarding the admission and retention of students who seem to be potentially dangerous have become normal procedures. This summer we have installed a notification system that sends messages to flat-panel LCD screens in buildings and simultaneously distributes text, e-mail, and web messages to cell phones. As I write, halfway through the season for summer orientation of new students, more than 4,700 have already signed up for this service. In the event of threatening activity on or near the Grounds—a gunman, a fire, chemical spill, severe weather—a message will go to the cell phones of students, faculty, and staff members who have registered with the messaging system. We encourage all students and employees to register their cell phone numbers with the emergency-alert system. To register, visit www.virginia.edu/uvaalerts. Finally, we are exploring the possibility of installing a Grounds-wide siren and public address system to warn of imminent danger. When Governor Kaine’s review panel concludes its work, we may see heightened security requirements from the state for all new buildings and for those scheduled for renovation. We will address security measures that emerge from the panel’s work this fall.
What happened at Virginia Tech could have happened on any campus in America, including this one. The climate of openness and permeability that allows for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge in our colleges and universities allows also for unwanted intrusions and obviously also for threats from within the student body itself—sometimes in terrible, havoc-wreaking forms. Our obligation and our task is to sustain the spirit of openness that defines university life while also ensuring the safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff. This is the difficult but necessary job before us.