Virginia Tech’s denial and deception campaign appears to have moved into a new phase in mid-2010. Censorship and manipulation had not worked; a full-scale media propaganda campaign had been only partially successful. Now, the school appeared intent on wiping out as many of the reminders of the tragedy as possible. Tech’s new tactic became clear to me in the spring of 2010 when I received an invitation from Professor Jerzy Nowak at Virginia Tech to participate in “Cultivating Peace: A Student Research Symposium on Violence Prevention” to be held from November 12-14, 2010. I checked with Michael Pohle and he was not going to attend, but because I was asked to moderate a session of the symposium, I accepted.
Professor Nowak’s wife, Jocelyne Coulture-Nowak, was the French professor murdered by Cho. As a tribute to her and to all those who were killed and injured, Nowak set up the “Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention” (CPSVP) in the rooms of Norris Hall where 30 people had been butchered. In conjunction with the CPSVP and its affiliated “Students for Non-Violence” club, a student symposium on violence prevention was organized.
In June of 2010, I received an invitation from Mark G. McNamee, Senior Vice President and Provost, inviting me to take part in an “International Summit in Transdisciplinary Approaches to Violence Prevention” to take place on 12-13 November, 2010. My first impression was that the student symposium had been expanded, and I immediately accepted. The opening paragraph from McNamee reinforced my impression that the summit was intended to honor those who were killed or wounded at Tech:
“On April 16, 2007, a terrible tragedy happened at Virginia Tech. The violent actions of one individual took the lives of 32 members of our community. In the subsequent three years, members of our community, as well as other communities around the world continue to struggle with the pain and loss caused by individuals determined to unleash violence upon innocent people. It is within this context that Virginia Tech is convening leading researchers and noted practitioners in the field of violence prevention to share research, engage in dialogue, and advance best and promising practices that take holistic and systems approach to the critical issued related to violence. …”
The more I thought about it, however, the more I was bothered by the two gatherings being held simultaneously. When I looked closely at the dates for the summit and for the student symposium, I noted they did not exactly coincide. In August, I queried the student symposium and found out that my suspicions were correct—the international conference had been organized after the student symposium. It appeared that the school was trying to sideline the students. This fact became even more apparent when I got to Blacksburg and found out that members of the press covering the international gathering weren’t even aware of the student symposium. There were also widespread and disturbing rumors that the university had pulled funds from the CPSVP, making the organizers scramble to find financial backing.
The international summit and student symposium began on the evening of November 12th with a joint welcoming session. School President Charles Steger gave the opening address. This was my first exposure to Steger and I am not sure what I expected, but by any standard, I was taken aback by the undistinguished man who stood before us. I didn’t find him particularly imposing, and his speech was bland. I was also bothered by the lack of eye contact with audience. There was no emotion in his voice and he never mentioned the tragedy at Tech.
I suddenly felt as if I had stepped back in time to when I was a political analyst at the CIA covering the communist world. I was once again watching an uninspiring leader drone on and on to a tightly controlled and manipulated conclave, and to an audience that responded with perfunctory applause.
I had hoped I would see and hear a university president who would dedicate the conclave to the victims of Cho’s rage—those murdered and those wounded, both physically and emotionally. But April 16, 2007 was never mentioned. Indeed, no one speaking that evening ever mentioned the shootings. It was as if several hundred people had gathered in Blacksburg to discuss violence prevention in the abstract. It was as if the school had lured us to Blacksburg by invoking the memory of the tragedy, and then tried to ignore that it ever happened. The words “bait and switch” came to my mind.
Something else was curious. Participants in the student symposium were invited to attend the opening ceremony, but the reception following that ceremony was limited to “badge holding participants only.” That meant the students and those attending only the student symposium were not invited to the reception. I thought that rather odd, considering the fact that the student symposium had been the catalyst for both gatherings. To this day I am not sure whether the students were excluded because of academic arrogance, or because the school was intent on keeping participants as far away from the international conference as possible.
I also found it odd that the International Conference on Violence Prevention was held on the main floor of the Skelton Conference Center and the student symposium was in the basement. There were no signs directing people to the student symposium; those wanting to hear the students were left on their own to work through the maze of the conference center and find their way down to where the students had gathered.
I also thought it strange that there was no mention of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention Professor Nowak had established using the remodeled rooms in Norris Hall where Cho’s rampage took place. When I accepted the invitations to both the International Conference and the Student Symposium, I assumed that the university would offer all participants the chance to see the CPSVP. Once again my expectations were not met. There was no mention of it during the opening ceremony, nor were participants encouraged to see Professor Nowak’s center first hand.
More recently, my suspicions that the university wanted to downplay the shootings (or pretend they never happened), were confirmed when I found out that the Center had been downgraded from a “University Center,” to an adjunct of the Sociology Department.
On Saturday, November 13, 2010, I moderated the first segment after lunch. It was entitled “Violence Prevention and Conflict Resolution.” Again, throughout the morning sessions no one mentioned the April 16, 2007 shootings. The silence was deafening.
I was not the only one to find the absence of any reference to Cho’s shootings disquieting. At lunch, I met a group of students and their professor from an East Coast university. When I noted the rather eerie lack of reference to the worst school shooting in this nation’s history (and the reason why most of us came to Virginia Tech for the conference and symposium), they immediately agreed saying they too were puzzled. It was as if that terrible day had never happened, as if the school wanted to deny that a gunman had slaughtered 32 people and wounded at least 17 others.
After talking to the professor and students, I decided this silence would end.
That afternoon I opened my segment of the student symposium with the following:
“Thank you professor Nowak for sponsoring this symposium. I must begin by saying I am somewhat concerned that we are sitting on the campus where the most horrific mass murder took place in the history of this country—we are attending an international conference and a symposium on violence prevention, and there has been no mention of that tragedy. I find this fact troubling. So, as a tribute to the memory of those 32 innocent victims of April 16, 2007 slaughter, I would like to dedicate this session to their memory. Indeed, Professor Nowak’s establishment of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention is an outstanding and fitting way to honor the memory of those 32 innocent individuals.”
“It is an honor for me to sit on this panel—I believe that it is absolutely critical to bring in the minds and ideas of young people such as those seated next to me, if we are ever to make progress in preventing the all too frequent slaughter that occurs on our nation’s campuses.”
“When Professor Nowak asked me to participate, I asked, “What do you want me to say?” He said, “Perhaps something about yourself and your background. This symposium is not about me; it is not about anyone in attendance or the people on the panel, it is about finding solutions to prevent violence. … “
“What I want you know is that my journey in this quest to find answers to campus violence began on January 16, 2002, when the mother of my oldest grandchild was gunned down on the campus of the Appalachian School of Law at Grundy, Virginia—less than 200 miles from where we sit.”
“The parallels between that shooting and the shootings here at Virginia Tech are frightening. Parallels in the profiles of the killers, parallels in the failure of people in positions of authority to heed the warning signs, parallels in the poor responses at the time of the shooting (in both cases costing lives), and parallels in the lack of candor in raising questions as to what went wrong, failure to identify individuals who failed in their responsibilities (and to hold them accountable), failure of law enforcement officials, and the willingness of politicians on both sides of the aisle to gloss over harsh realities and in so doing, to create a cover up.”
My remarks drew thunderous applause. Clearly, I was not the only one puzzled by the silence. (To be continued)