OPEN UNIVERSITY APRIL 22, 2007
by Jeffrey Herf
One of the historian's favorite words is "conjuncture." It refers to the simultaneous presence of causal factors that leads to an outcome that none on their own would have produced. It is our alternative to simplistic, single-cause explanations of events. It is an older term for what we now call "a perfect storm." The Virginia Tech massacre, and others that have preceded it are the product of a conjuncture of the ready availability of powerful, rapid fire guns; laws that have tilted too far in the direction of the rights of the mentally ill and away from protection of others; a mass culture of films and video games drowning in images of sadism and violence that makes the "fascist aesthetics" of the last century seem tame by comparison; state governments that fail to enforce federal laws on the books that restrict gun access to the mentally ill; and a public and political establishment that has tolerated an intolerable level of murder and mayhem in our country, especially since the 1960s. (On this see my article in TNR online ("True Crime," August 10, 2005).
With so many factors leading to disastrous outcomes, the temptation is great to throw up one's hands and conclude that there is some deep sickness in our country and our culture that is immune to cure. I have two practical suggestions to reduce the likelihood of more perfect storms on campus.
First, in our universities, administrators should listen more closely to the faculty when they point to dangerous students. Many administrators have become used to viewing faculty as a nuisance to be managed more than as a source of wisdom. We now know that at Virginia Tech, at least two of the murderer's professors in the English Department, Lucinda Roy and Nikki Giovanni, saw clear evidence of his madness in his written work. They notified the administration and the counseling service of the danger he posed. When literary critics whose profession lies in examining the human heart and mind send up warning signs, it would have been a good idea, to put it mildly, to take them very seriously. This was especially the case as the state of Virginia is infamous for the laxity of its gun laws--and for allowing the sale of many guns that have been used in inner-city crimes in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York.
As we all know, the eventual murderer was allowed to remain on campus. So the second thing that should happen is that universities and colleges need to change the way they think about student rights and responsibilities. On the one hand, April is the cruelest month for thousands of high school seniors who worry about whether or not they will enjoy the enormous privilege of admission to the university and college of their choice. None of them have a right to attend any particular college or university. Rather, admission must be earned. Logically, that which can be earned can also be lost through infractions of university rules. Plagiarizing a paper, for example, can and sometimes does lead to punishment including possibly expulsion from school. In this case, threatening other students and writing lunatic essays did not.
University administrators at Virginia Tech and elsewhere thought more about the various laws that protect the privacy of any student over the age of 18 than they did about the wisdom of Professors Roy and Giovanni. A letter to the editor in The New York Times of April 21st from Dr. William S. Appleton, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a marvel of common sense and wisdom. It deserves to be widely read and discussed so I'll do my part and summarize and quote Appleton's important points. He notes that "corporate America is not as timid as college administrators" in requiring employees to sign forms permitting release of sensitive information to insurance companies and others they deem fit. Appleton then suggests that "entering students ought to be required to sign a privacy waver covering serious mental and other illnesses under certain clearly defined conditions. Refusal to sign would mean failure to matriculate," that is, the student would not be admitted.
Doctor Appleton then combines common sense with the wisdom of a physician: "It is inconceivable that parents and concerned administrators are not informed and permitted to act upon students who fall down drunk, take dangerous drugs, make suicidal attempts, lose weight in anorexic proportions, fall to get out of bed and go to class or stalk or threaten anyone in their college community."
The truth is that it is impossible to protect a sprawling university campus from every lunatic with a gun. But it is possible to protect us from some of them. It is possible to place the security of life and limb of the members of the university and college community ahead of the privacy rights of individuals likely to do them harm--or kill them. It is time to change laws and mentalities. If we don't, who can be surprised if more conjunctures and perfect storms descend on us in the future.