The initial selection of a school based on its security policy is one of the best ways for parents to keep their children safe, but it can go only so far in reforming security for U.S. universities as a whole. Nor does the answer lie in simply improving technology. In the final analysis, the most expensive and sophisticated security system is only as good as the people in charge; the best psychological counseling is only as good as the individuals doing the counseling, and the best contingency or emergency plans are only as good as the people who implement them. Improving campus safety begins at the top. Therefore, correcting the current system under which school presidents and senior officials are selected is a critical part of the campus security equation.
Priority: Fundraising or Safety?
Somewhere along the way higher education in the United States lost its focus on students and scholarship, and we are paying a terrible price. We have to ask for a reexamination of how and why school presidents are selected. If faculty members are concerned about their safety and the safety of their students, yet school administrators ignore signs of abnormal violent behavior on the part of students or staff, then the atmosphere is counterproductive to learning and unequivocally counterproductive to safety.
A contributing factor to this deterioration in the quality of school leaders was the change to running state-funded colleges and universities more like businesses than institutions of learning—Virginia Tech being a primary example. With that change in attitude came school leaders with little or no background or concern with campus safety.
Professor Lucinda Roy points this out in her firsthand account of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, No Right to Remain Silent. She writes: “… Nowadays, some of those in leadership positions at universities have little experience working with students and almost no experience in the classroom. It has become more important to hire administrators who know how to raise money than it is to hire those who know much about students.” She further asserts, “If you examine a typical state-funded university, you will find that many of its resources are dedicated to generating funds. As the public began to opt out of subsidizing public education in the past two decades, something had to fill the gap. A university that is focused on staying afloat cannot pay as much attention to students as it did in the past.”
Sometime in the 1970s state governments throughout this country decided to reduce financial support for state colleges and universities. A professor at Virginia Tech told me that when he joined the faculty in the 1980s over 60 percent of the university’s budget came from the state government. By 2011, he said, that figure was down to around 17 percent. He did not reveal his sources, but I have heard similar figures from others. The point is that state schools needed to raise money and turned to private sources of revenue. The net result has been that schools seek presidents who are more public relations experts than educators and few, if any, have had training in crisis management. Here again, Virginia Tech is a prime example of the serious consequences of this trend and the dangers in moving to the business model to run state schools. Under President Charles Steger’s leadership, Tech had signed a legal document with the state’s General Assembly allowing the university to act like a private institution and seek vast amounts of funds to offset the reduction of state funding. This move alone ensured that Steger would concentrate on fundraising above all else. This document is one of Steger’s signature achievements.
Robert Bickel and Peter Lake, in their exhaustive and insightful look at risk and responsibility on college campuses, point out that the net result of this move toward funding of state universities is that most college presidents today are “glad-handers” and fund raisers—not educators.
Even worse, most college and university presidents are woefully lacking knowledge of safety and security matters. Indeed, Virginia Tech’s President Charles Steger is a case in point. Read his biography or listen to his defenders—the repeated emphasis on how much money he has raised for the school drowns out all else.
In order to make our colleges and universities safer, we will have to spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on such things as security training and equipment, and mental health programs. These expenditures cannot be tallied on a profit sheet—they are expenses on behalf of our nation’s future; they are long-term investments we must make to preserve this nation’s greatness. These expenses defy the business model and account sheets, but they can be—and are—crucial to saving lives.
To run state colleges and universities on a for-profit basis is not only counterproductive in the long run, but it has cheapened the quality of education. Look at it this way: if you pay for your daughter or son to go to college, under the business model some lawyers argue that you have paid money and established a contract, and your child is owed a degree. This is nonsense. In fact, all the money does is give a person access to facilities that offer the opportunity of getting an education. There is no guarantee that anyone, once enrolled, will meet the standards the school has set to grant a degree. The use of this business model has lowered standards.
At one point in my career I worked with a former senior member of an English Department at a major Washington DC area university. She designed and implemented a test that all graduating seniors from the school, no matter what their major, had to pass in order to get their degree. So many seniors were flunking that the alumni association and parents were up in arms and were threatening to cut off money. The school dropped the test.
I suspect that what happened to my friend has happened elsewhere. A few years ago I was asked to teach 140 intelligence officers in a major component of the U.S. Intelligence Community. At the end of the training I was asked by senior management to evaluate the quality of their officers. My evaluation was that approximately 43 percent of the people I trained were sub-standard in basic English; an English sentence was an alien concept for many of them. The vast majority of these officers had a four-year college degree.
More recently, in 2013, I was working for a component of the Intelligence Community and when I was through, the consulting company who had hired me asked for an evaluation of the students I had worked with. I reported that one of the students was seriously lacking in his abilities to be an intelligence analyst. The company asked me to rewrite the evaluation because of the “tone” of what I had written. They wanted me to say everything was just fine. I did rewrite, but the reference to the deficiencies stayed in.
Whether it is our students, or our fighting men and women, their lives seem to be expendable as long as a profit is made. To say that this country is in a sorry state of affairs doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem. Is it surprising then, to find that we are hiring glorified bankers and campaign managers to lead some of our greatest educational institutions? (To be continued)