April 16, 2007 changed Virginia Tech irrevocably. But how much did the shootings of 32 students and professors on the Blacksburg, Va., campus change the rest of higher education?
It will probably be a long time before that question is answered fully. But in a presentation this week at the annual forum  of the Association for Institutional Research, researchers from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact offered an initial analysis  of some of the more practical changes that campus officials said they had made in the wake of the Virginia Tech incident. Their study, "The Ripple Effect of Virginia Tech: Assessing the Nationwide Impact on Campus Safety and Security Policy and Practice," finds that most two-year and four-year colleges and universities reviewed and in many cases significantly altered their campus safety procedures, especially in terms of notifying students about possible danger and dealing with students who displayed signs of trouble.
But on balance, the survey also found, campus leaders generally shunned the sort of wholesale changes to their admissions or other policies that might have been seen as severely restricting the campus culture or trampling on individual rights. While more than half of respondents said they had considered installing metal detectors at entrances to classroom buildings, and about a third said they had contemplated adding questions to their admissions applications that asked would-be whether they had had previous psychiatric treatment, few did so.
"It's interesting what they talked about and didn't do," said Gina Johnson, a researcher at the Midwestern compact who co-wrote the report with Chris Rasmussen, director of policy research there. Despite significant pressure from many sources (legislators, parents, etc.) to react aggressively to the Virginia Tech crisis, in many cases campuses "didn't go to extremes" in response.
The survey, conducted by the multistate Midwestern compact and funded by two insurers, AIG and Lexington Insurance Company, asked officials at a national mix of colleges a series of questions about changes on their campuses since the Virginia Tech shootings (Midwestern colleges responded slightly disproportionately and Western campuses slightly disproportionately, the researchers said).
The vast majority of the 331 two- and four-year campuses that responded said they had conducted thorough reviews of their campus safety and security policies and procedures, with Southern colleges (those closest to Virginia Tech) most likely to have done so (at 96 percent), followed by Northeastern (88 percent), Western (82 percent) and Midwestern institutions (79 percent). Bigger institutions were also likelier than smaller ones to have conducted such reviews.
Most said that they had altered their practices in response to the reviews, although "they were really doing a lot of things already," said Johnson. Among the most significant changes they did make: While just 5 percent of survey respondents said that they had incorporated mobile phones in their institutions' emergency notification systems before Virginia Tech, 75 percent of the remaining institutions said they had either implemented such technology since last April or had such a plan in the works.
Thirty-six percent of respondents to the Midwestern compact's survey said they had staged incidents to test their emergency response systems since the Virginia Tech shootings. Larger campuses were far likelier than smaller campuses to have done so; 57 percent of institutions with more than 10,000 students had staged at least one incident, while 37 to 39 percent of colleges with between 1,000 and 10,000 students had done so, and 14 percent of institutions with enrollments under 1,000.
Among other changes:
- Thirty-five percent said they had increased their institutionwide budgets for 2007-8 for safety and security as a direct result of Virginia Tech.
- More than half of institutions said they had reviewed their policies under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and about a quarter of those said they had changed how they carry out the federal student privacy law and communicate student information either internally or externally.
- Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said they had revised language in the student handbook related to disturbing or threatening student behavior, and 38 percent reported that their institutions had conducted general awareness campaigns to help students recognize such behavior in others.
The Balancing Act
As noteworthy as what changed was what did not. More than half of respondents said they had considered installing metal detectors at entrances to classroom buildings, and nearly half said they had considered installing closed circuit security cameras in individual classrooms. But in both of those cases, most institutions opted not to go that route; 39 percent said they had discussed but rejected the idea of metal detectors (about 15 percent said the notion was still on the table), and about a third had decided not to go forward with cameras in their classrooms (more than 20 percent said they were still entertaining that possibility).
A similar outcome emerged regarding admissions policies. About 30 to 35 percent of respondents said they had considered adding questions to their admissions application asking whether applicants had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, received any psychiatric or psychological treatment, or were currently taking medication to treat a psychiatric or psychological condition. Most of the rest said they had not even considered asking such questions, and virtually none of the campuses that contemplated doing so said they actually wound up asking such questions.
More than half of respondents said they had not considered the prospect of starting background checks of applicants for admission, and 14 percent reported considering but rejecting the idea. Fifteen percent said they had discussed the possibility and were still weighing it. "Only 3 percent ... reported that background checks were being conducted in the 2007-8 admissions cycle," the report said, and less than 2 percent said they planned to do so in the future.