There was a fatal shooting Wednesday night just blocks from North Campus. If you were lucky, you probably found out about it on Thursday. While there isn’t a reason to get hysterical about this incident, the University’s lagging and varied response left a lot to be desired. Hindsight is 20/20; but looking back, the University’s response illustrated mistakes that need to be corrected if it hopes to establish a uniform and rapid response system alerting those on and near campus of potential safety threats.
Students received word of the homicide, which occurred less than a mile from North Campus, in a way that could almost be considered haphazard. The shooting occurred at roughly 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. About four hours later, an e-mail was sent to the media, University department heads and people signed up for crime alerts from the Department of Public Safety, the unit responsible for protecting campus. An e-mail to students living in North Campus residence halls wasn’t sent until early Thursday morning. More than 14 hours after the shooting occurred a campus-wide e-mail was finally sent.
Few students actually received these e-mails until hours after they were sent. When sending out campus-wide e-mails, the system is backlogged for up to 10 hours because it is taxed by so many e-mails. The University suggests that department heads forward the e-mail to their students, and some students may have received the e-mail in this way. Others may have received it from other groups they are in. Some never actually received any e-mail at all.
The inconsistency of this response makes the University seem irresponsible. Although the man responsible for Wednesday’s homicide has not threatened the lives of others on campus, it is still important to step back, look at how this situation was handled and think about how it can be improved. It’s unfair to compare this incident to the tragedy at Virginia Tech last spring; but it is also unfair to disregard its lessons.
The lag in sending campus-wide e-mails is a considerable problem. Last week, the campus-wide e-mail from Michigan Student Assembly President Mohammad Dar encouraging students to vote in the presidential primary and informing them about how they could vote had the same problem. That e-mail reached some students after the polls closed. If the University can’t find a way to speed up its mass e-mails using its own web mail system, maybe the problem could be solved by outsourcing to other web mail systems like GMail or Windows Live. Although there are privacy concerns that need to be considered if the University switched to one of these systems, these systems also come with considerable benefits like increased storage space and a more user-friendly platform.
It is also unusual and confusing that some University department heads forwarded the e-mail to their students while others did not. If it improves how quickly students receive an e-mail, there is every reason to direct department heads and administrators to forward the e-mail and not just suggest participation.
On the positive side, a text-message alert system is slated to be implemented in March. This should go far to get the word out quicker. Nevertheless, when the program begins, the University must make sure to inform students about how to enroll for alerts and how the system will work, including the circumstances under which it will be used.
In all of these alert systems, the University must exercise considerable discretion about what constitutes a true campus safety threat. But, this shouldn’t be an excuse to not be prepared for one. While it is unnecessary to create hysteria over isolated incidents, the cost of failing to inform the campus community of important threats could be profound.