When Cho Seung-Hui shot and killed two students in West Ambler Johnston Hall on the morning of April 16, my friend was asleep in East Ambler Johnston Hall, the adjoining building. It wasn’t until he was between classes on campus a few hours later that he learned about the shooting – via text message, from a friend off-campus.
While Virginia Tech used e-mail alerts before, it began requiring that students register cell phones with the urgent notification system in order to register for classes after the shooting last summer. It also uses other ways to notify students, like instant messaging, and even offers alerts for parents. This takes the extra burden off the school’s website, which crashed on April 16 due to unusually high usage.
Just under a year later, we finally have our own system. The University of Michigan launched its new emergency alert system Monday, which allows students to receive text message alerts and voice messages on up to two phones. However, unlike Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan will let students choose whether or not to enroll in the system.
What a way to kill a promising program.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported Monday that colleges nationwide are struggling to garner student participation in cell phone alert programs. While ITfacts, an online data compiler, reported last year that 90 percent of students carry cell phones, the companies that provide these alert systems report low enrollment. The University of Missouri at Columbia even tried giving away an iPod Nano as an incentive to register, but still only 15 percent of the student body subscribed.
Not only is the University of Michigan skipping the giveaway, it’s also making enrollment in the system more difficult than it needs to be. The e-mail encouraging students to register offered a supposedly helpful link – directly to Wolverine Access. From there, the University expects students to notice the small announcement in the left-hand side of the page, directing them to “Student Business.” They then must log in to the website and find the new “Phone and UM Emergency Alert Numbers” option, buried in the middle of the “Personal Information” links.
If students haven’t given up by that point, they then must figure out what to choose for “Phone Type.” Is a cell phone “Mobile,” “UM Alert Text Message” or whatever “Current Address Voice” means? Luckily, “Telephone” seems like an easy prompt – until you use parentheses ((734) 555-1234) instead of a backslash (734/555-1234) and end up with an ambiguous error message about phone numbers needing 10 digits.
Let’s be honest: Students are generally lazy. If it’s not going to affect our grade, we tend to drag our feet, if we participate at all. By failing to simplify the form and then burying it in Wolverine Access, the University has basically ensured low enrollment.
But the University’s biggest blunder may be its willingness to bow to student opposition. Because students are concerned about too many alerts, the University has promised to use the system only in the event of a major hazardous chemical spill, a tornado warning or a shooter loose on campus. Of course, only certain shootings qualify. The shooting of a home intruder near North Campus and subsequent manhunt in January wouldn’t have made the cut, according to Department of Public Security spokeswoman Diane Brown.
The University knows that some students are more worried about spam than campus security. While I’m usually a champion of student freedom, today I’m pro saving people from their own ignorance.
When asked about Virginia Tech’s urgent notification system, which also alerts students to class cancellations and weather emergencies, my friend spoke with a wisdom that only comes from seeing the system’s importance first-hand.
“If anything, I feel more confident that I will be informed about something important before I come to campus or in due time,” he said. And as he aptly noted, the most important response to the tragedy is “taking the necessary steps to move forward and prepare the campus for, God forbid, future incidents.”
The University has a responsibility to promote campus safety, no matter how inconvenient it seems to students. By making participation in this innovative alert system voluntary and unnecessarily complex, it has ensured that the program will be ineffective before it even gets off the ground. Requiring subscription to voice or text alerts isn’t a huge leap considering that the old e-mail notification system was compulsory. Furthermore, with all of the resources and qualified individuals the University has at its disposal, this system should be too easy not to use because the price for not using it is too great.
My friend agreed, commenting that he thought most universities would make this emergency notification system mandatory.
“They almost have to,” he added, “because you never know.”
-Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.