• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


I Hope This Was Useless

Lessons from the tragedy at Umpqua Community College.

April 12, 2016

I did my usual panel-hopping at AACC on Monday, but one panel was so much more moving and potentially important than the others that it’s getting the entire post to itself. I hope it will prove to be useless, but I fear that it won’t.

Rita Cavin is the former interim president of Umpqua Community College, in Oregon. She was in office on October 1, 2015, when the mass shooting happened there. She discussed the aftermath, and offered lessons in preparation for other colleges.

There’s typically a certain level of ambient noise at panels. It’s not bad or distracting, but it’s there. When she spoke, the noise was notable for its absence. We were riveted. I caught myself tearing up a few times, which is unusual for me; when I looked around, I noticed plenty of others doing the same. It’s just too easy to imagine it happening anywhere.

I can’t really do justice to her presentation, though I typed as fast as I could. Some takeaways:

  • Morbidly enough, the first week or so after the event is the “honeymoon.” That’s when sympathy is highest. It ends with the last funeral.
  • Language matters. The college decided to refer to the victims as “the Umpqua Nine.” That number specifically excluded the killer, who also died.
  • They called him the “killer,” rather than the “shooter.” Shooters could be hunters or target shooters. This was a killer.
  • They had to designate an area on campus to keep the flowers, teddy bears, and various other tokens of sympathy that arrived.
  • Before raising the flag from half-mast, they had a bagpipe ceremony to mark the occasion. You don’t want people to see a raised flag as a slap in the face.
  • You don’t have access to a crime scene. That means employees couldn’t get their purses, car keys, or various other belongings for a week.

Mary Spilde, the president of Lane Community College, followed with a discussion of the support that Lane and other community colleges offered in the immediate aftermath.

  • Umpqua is on a quarter system, so it happened on the fourth day of class. It does financial aid reporting based on the fifth day. They needed help communicating with the Feds to get waivers.
  • Statewide coordinating bodies of community college administrators -- yes, they exist -- can become valuable resources when the local administration is overwhelmed. They had to perform what Spilde called a “dance” of respecting the authority of the local leaders while still making sure that key decisions got made when they had to. And as Spilde noted, nobody is at their best in the wake of incredible trauma.

Counselors were necessary for nearly everybody.  

Anne Marie Levis spoke about her role managing crisis communications. Her emphasis was on the importance of diverting press -- who could seem intrusive and even aggressive -- from everyone else on campus so they could get back to normal as quickly as possible. She and the president made a strategic decision to forego any invitations to enter into the national debate about guns, on the probably-correct assumption that it would become a distraction. Rather than allowing Umpqua to become a talking point for one side or the other, they focused entirely on getting back to work.

I don’t recall ever seeing a q-and-a period that combined as much participation with as much respect. In response to one question, Spilde noted that it’s crucial to do drills frequently, because as soon as the “honeymoon” passes, people will start looking for someone to blame. If you haven’t run drills in a while, you’ll become the villain.  The panel was divided on whether to do drills when students are present. On one side, it would be the most thorough and accurate preparation. On the other, it could be traumatizing in itself. (Cavin mentioned that the students who had experience with guns were the first to recognize the sounds of gunshots as gunshots.  They were the first to urge people to take cover.  A point as subtle as that one suggests that steering clear of the political debate was the right call.)

Cavin noted, too, that it’s easy to forget to help the helpers. She noted that the leaders of student government stepped up in amazing ways, but that their needs for counseling weren’t immediately recognized.  

In my perfect world, we wouldn’t need to know any of this. But we might, and probably without warning. My thanks to Rita Cavin, Mary Spilde, and Anne Marie Levis for sharing some of the hardest-won wisdom I’ve heard.


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