Mistakes in judgment often are understandable and become regrets because they were honest and made in the heat of the moment. However, in the case of Virginia Tech, it seems clear that many of the decisions made in the wake of the horrors of April 16, 2007, were not mistakes in judgment; they were cold, calculating decisions designed to protect the school’s leaders and reputation. All available evidence indicates the school put damage control ahead of the interests of the victims’ families and ahead of school safety.
Within three days of the shootings, a Web site (www.wesupportvt.com) in support of President Charles Steger and Chief Wendell Finchum was created. By contrast, it took Virginia Tech’s Office of Recovery and Support four months to get the Web site (www.recoveryvt.com) for the victims’ families up and running.
Less than six weeks after the shootings, on May 29, 2007, Virginia Tech signed a contract with one of this country’s largest and most prestigious publication firms—Burson-Marsteller—to handle publicity about the shooting rampage. (And no doubt, to put the school, President Steger, and Chief Finchum in the best light, by focusing public attention away from the administration’s glaring mistakes in judgment and on “the Hokie nation’s” need to pull together and recover.)
Monies paid to Burson-Marsteller totaled $663,006.48. This, in spite of the fact that Virginia Tech has a university public relations office staffed by highly competent officials—as well as courses in public relations taught by outstanding faculty members—yet the school paid nearly $700,000.00 to a public relations firm to spin the shooting tragedy. Burson-Marsteller came to prominence in the 1990s for organizing a campaign in support of Philip Morris and the tobacco industry focused on smokers’ rights. (Do I see a tie to some of the most powerful groups in Virginia?) Later, they played spin-doctor again for Dow-Corning’s campaign on behalf of silicone breast implants. Some silicone implants developed leaks once implanted in a woman’s body, causing serious health problems. Can there be any other conclusion that Burson-Marsteller was engaged by Virginia Tech to continue working the magic of misdirection in their client’s favor?
Compare the $663.006.48 of tax payers’ money spend on public relations with the $100,000.00 awarded to each of the dead victims’ families. A paltry $100,000.00 compensation for the loss of a child is a disgrace and an insult. Paying a huge amount of money to a public relations firm only adds insult to injury. The math is lousy; the math says it all. The school’s judgment and priorities were badly misplaced. The nearly $700,000.00 would have been better spent had it been given to the grieving families to help in the recovery process—counseling, etc. Or, the money should have been spent on school security as a tribute to the victims.
On March 18, 2009, an OpEd article of mine appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The article called for Virginia Tech President Charles Steger to step down and for Governor Kaine to reopen the investigation into the Tech shootings. A few days later, I received a well-written, thoughtful response from a lawyer in New York. He wrote, “While there are many bright, highly competent and well-intentioned people working in higher education, there is also a high level of mediocrity, incompetence and self-interest. In my opinion the latter traits have been displayed in this situation at Virginia Tech. And, such traits have been excused and ratified by the Governor’s immediate political actions in this instance.”
My family is part of the Hokie Nation. Our youngest son, Richard, is a graduate of Virginia Tech. We are so proud of the outstanding education he received at Virginia Tech, and we always have been. However, that pride does not preclude the shame we feel over the school’s abysmal leadership—specifically, the school’s cold, calculating actions designed to protect and enhance the Virginia Tech image at the expense of the victims’ families.