Of Blacksburg

Originally posted by O Ceallaigh on the discontinued blog Felloffatruck Publications, 16 April 2007. Reposted here, with updates, in support of a retrospective currently ongoing at the Dude & Dude site.

VT_April_16_memorialI’m sitting here stunned at the news of 33 dead and more wounded in the shooting spree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (more commonly known as Virginia Tech). I didn’t get the news right away; the Tax Day Nor’easter of 2007 came through eastern Massachusetts (where I’m hanging out at present) last night with howling winds, and it took out our power. It was only when it was restored, close to noon Eastern Daylight Time today (16 April 2007), that our concerns about toppled trees and flooded basements were trumped by the echoes from flying bullets.The news of the worst disaster of this type in US history is bad enough. But it’s that much worse when you’ve spent your entire adult life in academia. Dammit, I have friends and colleagues there! I figured that they’d be out of harm’s way; botanists don’t usually hang out in buildings devoted primarily to Engineering. Then I read that one of the dead is a professor of German, whose class had been booked into a lecture hall in that engineering building. They have not yet released the names of the hit. “Pending notification of next of kin”. I just hope I don’t get an email, or a listserve posting …

As I write this, I am watching a news conference in which the campus police chief and university president are getting a toasting over their apparently slow response times to the events of the day. To listen to the critics, police should have instantly notified everybody, and both shut down and locked down the campus. That way, fewer people would have died, they said. We would have Security.

Yeah right. Perhaps if we had the police state some of us feel we should have in Amerika right now. But for those of us whose memories actually extend back to the facts of Kent State University in 1970, there’s a bitter irony to this message.

Ever since the Morrill Act of 1862, public universities have proliferated in these United States, out of the abstruse notion that education was actually good for something. (Virginia Tech is one of the 106 Land Grant colleges and universities that were made possible by the Morrill Act.) Not just education, but education that was independent of outside influences.

The benefits of a free exchange of information and ideas among academic types was given a further boost during World War II, when such exchanges produced superior technologies faster than a foe (Nazi Germany) that initially had the lead in them, but did not encourage collaboration among its research and development teams.

The concept of a public university as a place for politically unfettered intellectual activity received a severe challenge during the 1960s, when campus lifestyles underwent a drastic change, from the voluntarily adopted lockstep of the Cold War era to the hippie counterculture of the Vietnam Era. Increasing levels of campus-based protest against US Government policies led to increasing levels of US Government intervention in campus affairs. Including incursions, real and imagined, by local police, state police, FBI agents, CIA agents, and even National Guard troops to curb the activities of recalcitrant students and faculty alike.

Some of us still remember when the attempts to curb campus-based anti-Vietnam War protest culminated in the deaths of four students at Kent State University on 4 May 1970, shot by nervous Ohio National Guard troops. Some of us still remember the strikes and protest marches that resulted from this episode. Some of us still remember Neil Young’s protest song.

Maybe fewer of us remember the longer-term effect of all this, at least, the effect that I have seen, and, being personally interested, kept some track of, though not in an “academic” sense with footnotes and all that – a renewed, concerted effort by the colleges and universities to “keep the pigs off campus”.

Most of the American universities with which I have been associated, in one way or another, have their own security forces. Sometimes, they even call them “police”, and they have their own badges, uniforms, squad cars, all that. They are there so that the campus can announce to the rest of the community, “What happens in Vegas on campus stays on campus. If we need help, we’ll holler. Unless and until that happens, keep out.” It’s a way to erect, and keep, a barrier between the (supposed) intellectual fervor of the university setting and the (potentially) suppressive coercion of political interests. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great idea. In principle.

Until there’s a calamity. Like the shootings at Virginia Tech.

I do not know any of the details of the Virginia Tech campus security forces. How many people they have, what the nature of their equipment is, what their procedures for dealing with crises are, what their relationships are with local and state police, or the FBI, or whatever. But given the generally sedate nature of most university campuses, where (I reckon) the usual activities are parking enforcement, traffic control, and breaking up drunken brawls after football games, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that they are totally understaffed and underfunded to tackle a crisis of this type and magnitude.

Besides, it takes time and practice to coordinate a community-wide response to a major emergency. At any time of the day. Never mind the Monday morning rush hour. Especially, it takes practice. And I can’t even remember the last time I participated in a fire drill in a university building. Probably because the administrators got sick of handling the hate mail from students and staff who were hacked off at the interruption to their activities.

The university campus remains today the most free community remaining in our supposedly free American society. The only real restriction to access is finding a parking place. Doors are usually open; when doors are chained shut, as apparently some were at Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall, they’re chained to control student movements for the convenience of custodians, or in the name of some energy-saving initiative. You don’t need an appointment to meet a professor; he probably would forget the appointment if you made one. Dorm proctors are as extinct as the Happy Days the Fonz used to inhabit. Which is just as well, because the comportment of most of today’s students would have sent the Miss Groby’s of that era into apoplexy – and into demands for permanent lockdowns. Demands that, in 1956, might well have been honored.

Our universities have proliferated. And they have grown, mightily. So have their fees. That fact alone has stifled much intellectual fervor. As I learned in Berkeley last year, hippie philosophy has a hard time surviving where house lots are selling for a million bucks. And it has piled stress on stress on those who remain. Stress that the absence of Miss Groby’s strict social codes has a harder and harder time containing.

Any police detective should be able to tell you what that adds up to. Motive. And opportunity. Maybe we should be counting our blessings that we haven’t already had a dozen Virginia Tech massacres. Maybe we should be wondering what to do to ensure that we don’t invite a whole lot more. Without inviting the pigs back on campus, to do their bit in the name of Homeland Security. Which I’m sure Our Beloved Administration would just love the chance to do. We wouldn’t be hearing anything more about that blessedly inconvenient global warming, now would we …

The other night, I sat up with my sister, whom I might not see again for awhile (Hawai’i is a long way away from Massachusetts) watching the DVD of the Farewell 1 Tour by the Eagles. I was particularly affected by their September 11th tribute song. Little did I suspect to what other circumstances the song could be applied. Or how soon I (we?) would be applying them.

There’s a hole in the world tonight

– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


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