The frightening incidents on two Big Ten campuses took place less than 48 hours apart. While Northwestern University gets an "A" for its efforts to alert students to a potential gunman, the University of Minnesota's campus communication after the random shooting near a crowded dorm last week doesn't rate a passing grade.
Many parents already hesitate before sending their kids to this sprawling, urban university. The incident on the U's Twin Cities campus just confirmed their worst fears. Late on Jan. 25, two men wearing puffy jackets cut a dangerous swath through campus, robbing several students and then, without provocation, turning a gun on a male student walking near Centennial Hall.
The young man, who was shot in the abdomen, thankfully is recovering. The two men? They were last seen fleeing into the night and remain at large.
The U has an emergency communications system in place to alert students to immediate danger -- almost every college has one in the wake of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University, where the gunman left campus after an initial shooting spree and then returned to kill again. Despite having the capability to send text messages instantly to many students' cell phones, and send out an all-campus e-mail crime alert, the U didn't send out an alert e-mail to students until 10:15 a.m. on Jan. 26.
In contrast, on Jan. 27 most of Northwestern's students learned within minutes that a gunman had been reported in a university-owned building in Chicago. Text messages, a recorded phone message, a campus e-mail and the Northwestern home page told students of the threat on Jan. 27 and warned them to avoid the building and take safety precautions. Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, estimates that the alert reached about 90 percent of students in 15 minutes. Police never found an actual gunman, but students at least were aware of the potential danger.
So why did the U fumble while its Big Ten counterpart swiftly handled a similar threat?
U officials, to their credit, acknowledge that improvements are needed. But the answer boils down to a regrettable judgment call about the gunmen's ongoing threat, as well as technological problems in sending out a mass e-mail. Because the gunmen were thought to have left campus, a decision was made not to use TXT-U, a student cell phone alert system that reaches about 15,000 people. A U police officer did write up a crime alert e-mail, but assistance was needed to send it out, and the call for help wasn't made at that late hour.
Greg Hestness, the U's police chief, spearheaded an analysis of the situation. He said that safety wasn't compromised or policy violated, but he termed the decision not to use TXT-U as a "missed opportunity.'' In the future, he said, tech experts have signed up to be on call at night to assist with mass e-mails. And next fall, the TXT-U system will likely include thousands more students, thanks to changes during registration that should increase the number of students signing up for the service.
The U should speed up the process of getting more students into the TXT-U system; it shouldn't let bureaucratic delays put it off until next fall. Its ongoing student communications policy also needs to err on the side of caution. In this case, students were texting each other frantically to find out what happened while the university's own system was deafeningly silent.
The U has a solid emergency communication system. Next time, it should use it.