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.
This television season, one of my all-time favorite shows bids farewell. After nine glorious years, "The Office" gets downsized.
Well, make that about six glorious years. For the past few, the show has skated by with weak writing and a revolving door of forgettable characters. Nonetheless, the show has its redeeming qualities. My favorite ongoing storyline is Andy Bernard’s love affair with Cornell.
Andy, we realize, is a bit of a buffoon. He’s an underachiever, or perhaps an overachiever, depending on how much actual talent he has. From what we’ve witnessed, it’s not a lot, at least as it pertains to real office work. As a paper salesman, he stinks. He has a quick temper and was consigned to anger management training after punching a hole in the office wall (Andy took that as a sign he was “management material”). His sartorial choices border on Bozo and his frequent falsetto song stylings — he was a member of the a cappella group Here Comes Treble -- irritate the bejesus out of his officemates.
Cornell plays a significant role in Andy’s life. It’s central to how he defines himself. He readily admits he was always drunk, never studied but graduated “on time.” He’s a silver-spooned Cornell legacy, and there’s a Bernard Hall on campus named for a wealthy ancestor. When, in an improbable turn of events, Andy becomes branch manager, he outfits his office with Cornell tchotchkes and memorabilia. He bleeds red.
With the show’s run coming to an end, so too will Cornell’s free advertising. What effect, one wonders, will this have on the university? I called to find out.
Admissions officials, it appears, already are bracing for the inevitable precipitous decline in applications. “Forget the Flutie Factor,” says admissions dean Rhea Kroot. “For a few days after Cornell is mentioned on T.V., we spike by seven or eight inquiries. It’s awesome.”
Applicants routinely name Andy Bernard among the Americans they admire most. “I want to be just like Andy,” wrote one essayist, “but successful. Cornell must be, like, the coolest place if he went there!”
Kroot admits she’s worried about the post-Andy dip in national rankings. “We’ll become less selective, donations will drop, and we’ll no longer be top-of-mind with all those presidents filling out the surveys,” she said. “The good thing is, we already rank last among the Ivies, so, you know, there’s that.”
Development officer Howie Fliecem agrees and says he’s glad Cornell’s capital campaign is winding down just in time. “We set our goal knowing the impact Andy has on our fundraising totals,” Fliecem said. “You just can’t have a better ambassador for the quality of a Cornell education than Andy. Without his constant boosterism, alumni interest is bound to fade.”
Plans are under way to consolidate the bookstore’s inventory of Cornell garb and mementos and to eliminate the positions of two purchasing agents and one interior designer dedicated to the Andy wing. “I would say Andy’s effect on our bottom line has been immeasurable,” said store manager Paige Turner, “but we actually measured it, and it’s what we in the college bookstore industry term ‘big.’ You wouldn’t believe the crowds that form around the Andy displays and the number of requests we get for ‘Bernard’ football jerseys, even though, technically speaking, he really didn’t play here.” Turner also projects a 14.27 percent decline in online purchases of Cornell stuff following the show’s farewell.
Cole Minor, a student leader, said his classmates were devastated by news of the show’s demise. “It’s, like, the whole reason I came here, dude,” Minor said. “I mean, I had my pick of five schools in the Upstate region. Knowing that the ‘Nard-dog went here cemented my decision. Well, that and the Ivy League thing.”
The university plans to cancel the spring pilgrimage to Scranton, along with the annual Andy doppelganger contest and musical tribute, though this year’s finale will feature an extended set no doubt tearfully performed by the current collection of Here Comes Treble warblers. Campus officials told me grief counselors will be on hand throughout the year for students seeking ways to cope with this unimaginable sense of loss.
Meanwhile, faculty across several disciplines are scrambling to design courses examining the show’s significance in American culture, hoping to lure students seeking solace in a gut elective. Sue dos Eyance, a sociologist, is offering “The Office, Gender Politics and the Culture of ‘That’s What She Said.’ ” Anna Graham, a faculty member in English, has come up with “Derrida’s Office: Deconstructing Andy through a Heuristic Voyage into Structuralism and Poststructuralism and a Smattering of Tropes.” And, in a daring turn, chemistry professor Al Kaline and biology lecturer Gene Poole have teamed to produce “Neurological Implications of Synaptic Responses to Faux-Reality Sitcoms.” Myriad monographs are said to be in the works as well.
If Cornellians agree on anything, it’s that Andy Bernard has been the best thing to happen to the university since Ezra. They remain cautiously optimistic about the future, confident that the university’s lofty standing within the academic pantheon will enable it to withstand this crippling blow to the institutional solar plexus. “It doesn’t get much worse than this,” said Bea Braver, a longtime member of the provost’s staff, “but we’ll survive. As always, we’ll come together as a community and find individual strength in our collective resolve.”
Finally, in what’s being called both a stroke of genius and an act of desperation, students and alumni have joined forces to fashion a petition calling for the creation of an Andy spinoff titled “Cornell and Me.” They’ve collected 40,075 signatures and generated 5,280 tweets endorsing the idea. Network executives are considering a pilot involving the very same writers who’ve recently driven "The Office" over the ratings cliff. Continuity, they say, is key.
“Andy Bernard deserves an even brighter spotlight, an even grander stage,” said Hugh Mawran, Class of ‘78. “But if our efforts fail, we Cornellians can take comfort in knowing that some part of Andy, however small and insignificant, lives on in all of us.”
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.