In wake of Newtown, rethinking what a university owes its town (essay)
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I had a scheduled call with our newspaper publisher in central Connecticut on the morning of Friday, December 14th, to complain about what I thought was an unfair story about the university. But as we began to talk he sounded very different from his usual friendly, open self: the newsroom was just learning the full magnitude of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary, and he was trying to figure out how to communicate it. Needless to say, I dropped my banal reason for calling and got off the phone quickly. Over the next few hours, the unimaginable tragedy became clear to all, and darkness settled on the entire region.
No one knew what to do, except our campus police officers, who by nature of their training know exactly what to do. They spent significant time in Newtown from the start and for days afterward, serving in motorcades and helping an overstretched local police force overwhelmed by media trucks and logistics of so many funerals. Everyone else on campus was pretty much frozen. The news starting pouring in about who was killed and of course there were scores of horrifying connections to our students, staff, faculty and alumni.
My first instinct was to cancel or at least avoid the holiday parties, many still planned for the days ahead. But then you remember that people worked hard to plan these, and want to be together no matter the context. That was true, and so we gathered. Of course Newtown was the topic and there were many tears, as things were still unfolding. We have an incredibly humane governor, who showed the depth of his feelings for people who suffer long before the events unfolded in Newtown. Those who know him got some comfort to hear that he was in the firehouse near Sandy Hook, and had been the one to tell 20 sets of parents that their children would not be coming home.
What were we to do as a university once the shock passed? This was not an on-campus tragedy, and the grief was in phone calls and on screens. Many UConn people live near or in Newtown, so their proximity made the trauma unavoidable. But it was not a time to head over to Sandy Hook, unless you were a police officer or first responder, so we had to set back and think about our responsibility as the flagship university, with so many in our community touched directly by a massacre of small children.
The email and phone calls started flowing in to me, as faculty, students, and staff communicated their ideas of what we should do – fund-raisers, memorials, video messages, websites, policy recommendations, and other very fine thoughts. I was staring into space by that Sunday afternoon, a bit overwhelmed by the creativity and possibilities, but we just couldn’t do all these things well. Then our Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, called with the best idea of all: a scholarship campaign for the siblings of Sandy Hook victims who might – in a few years – become UConn students. An excellent idea and we ran quickly with it, collecting nearly $500,000 within a few days. The campaign is still on and will be for a long while, at this address.
One of the victims’ parents wrote me a few days ago about how touched they were for our efforts on the scholarship fund, so I am certain that was at least one meaningful initiative. But this fund is the long-term good we can do for Newtown; the agonizing loss and trauma are still right here and right now.
I hope no university ever needs this list again, but here is what we at UConn have done over the past 10 days, beyond the scholarship fund:
- Academic Contributions from the School of Education: Days after the shooting, Professor George Sugai, a nationally recognized expert on school violence, joined with eight other researchers to draft a position paper outlining proposals for a scientifically informed approach to preventing future tragedies. Already, the document (which can be found here) has been endorsed by scores of top researchers and policy experts, along with more than 100 professional organizations.
- Commemorations: Following the tragedy, Connecticut towns saw an outpouring of public grief and support for the victims, and the UConn community was no exception. We did not hold a vigil on campus. Instead, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff members attended the candlelight vigil in Mansfield, home of the university’s main campus. This was about our town and our state, not our campus. Days later UConn responded to Governor Malloy’s call for a day of mourning with a commemoration in Hartford attended by hundreds, organized by the vice chair of our Board of Trustees.
- Athletics: UConn is home to two of the country’s premiere basketball teams, and they receive significant television time with broad national audiences. Both teams held candlelit moments of silence for the victims at games following the tragedy, with the women’s game against the University of Hartford on Dec. 22 including participation from the Newtown Youth Girls’ Basketball Association. Both teams will wear patches on their uniforms this season that say “SH” in green and white, the colors of Sandy Hook School. And Coach Auriemma’s prominence enabled us to secure him spots on CNN and MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," where he was able to speak about our scholarship fund.
- Genetics Research: Wayne Carver, the Chief Medical Examiner of Connecticut, enlisted the assistance of the department of genetics and developmental biology at the UConn Health Center in conducting tests on tissue samples from the gunman. Carver wants to learn whether the killer may have had a genetic disease or condition, and UConn’s nationally renowned geneticists will offer any support he requires.
- Help for Parents and First Responders: In the wake of any tragedy, one of the most overlooked aspects of the response is providing proper attention and care for first responders and others who may have been traumatized by the horror they encountered. Julian Ford, a professor of psychiatry in the UConn School of Medicine, has been providing expert advice on the best ways to address post-traumatic stress disorder, and also on how parents should talk with their children about the flood of graphic images and information from the tragedy.
- Just Being There: The bonds forged at a university are so strong, as Marvin McNeill, UConn’s Assistant Director of Athletic Bands, was reminded at the funeral for little Olivia Engel, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook School. Olivia’s father, Brian, is an alumnus of the marching band, and when he saw Marvin along with other members of the band representing UConn at his daughter’s funeral, he clasped Marvin in a strong embrace. “I whispered that I am bringing much love, prayer, and support from the UConn Marching Band into his ear, and he thanked me and squeezed a little harder,” Marvin said.
Susan Herbst is president of the University of Connecticut.