November 14 , 2008

The Troubled Student and Campus Violence: New Approaches


Imagine, hypothetically, the dismay of Professor Smith, a senior scholar returning from a yearlong sabbatical in some remote region of the globe. He had departed in April 2007 from a campus where faculty members and students engaged in animated debates about the meaning of life, only to find upon his return in September 2008 an anxious scene where protecting life had become a major focus of discussion. What a difference an academic year had made — with the campus climate transformed by frightening episodes of mass murder at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.

On the first day of the fall term, Smith was perplexed to find his classroom of undergraduates parted widely down the middle, like the Red Sea. Asking his class about the odd seating arrangement, he learned that during orientation, the students had been shown a survival-training video advising them to scope out their lecture halls and claim seats at the rear or on the aisle, so as to provide a short run for the exits should a shooting occur. Smith wondered, "Must I literally talk out of both sides of my mouth?"

Following class, the professor encountered a large and vociferous crowd of students on the quad, rallying with signs that read, "Students for Concealed Carry on Campus." The leader was telling the crowd that the carnage at Virginia Tech would have been considerably lessened had students other than the gunman been armed and ready to retaliate. Always the cynic, Smith muttered to himself, "How could anyone distinguish the good guys dressed in denim and toting backpacks from the bad guy dressed in denim and toting a backpack?"

Back at the department's office suite, Smith checked in with his graduate assistant, a quiet underachiever who spends day and night in the lab verifying research data. Despite doubts about the student's academic abilities, Smith knows he can at least depend on the doctoral candidate for tracking down references and other fairly mindless tasks whenever he needs them done.

If he were to familiarize himself with the data on campus shootings, Smith would quickly learn that the greater concern regarding safety is not lack of classroom security or concealed weapons, but the reclusive graduate assistant whom he inappropriately, though not maliciously, treats like his slave.

Smith — and every other college official in the country — could benefit from a glimpse at the data on the prevalence and patterns of campus shootings. Most prominent, of course, is that the exceptionally low probability of campus bloodshed, even after Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, does not warrant drastic changes in campus life — and certainly not extreme safety precautions like arming students and preferred classroom seating near escape routes.

Over the past two decades, there have been 14 fatal multiple shooting incidents on college campuses nationwide, of which three assaults were committed by campus outsiders (including one by a visiting parent at Shepherd University and another allegedly by a group of gunmen last month at the University of Central Arkansas). Moreover, eight of the remaining 11 episodes involved current or former graduate students, nursing or medical students, or law students, not traditional undergraduates. The ages of those 11 gunmen — all of them were men — averaged 31, with several of the assailants in their 40s.

Unlike young undergraduates, students in graduate and professional programs often lack healthy balance in their personal lives. They focus narrowly on academic work and training to the exclusion of other interests and other people in their lives. Indeed, graduate students are often detached from the range of social and cultural activities available on the campus, and many have difficulty maintaining stable familial and social relationships in the face of heavy academic demands. For some, in addition, the attraction of an academic career rests partly in the opportunity for independence and a fairly cloistered lifestyle.

No longer supported financially by parents, graduate students experience great pressure to juggle assistantship activities or outside employment with course work and thesis research, let alone to attend to social networks. At some point, their lives and sense of worth may revolve around academic achievement. To them, their investment in reaching a successful outcome can be viewed as almost a life-or-death matter.

Intense pressure to be the best was what caused the physics student Gang Lu, at the University of Iowa, to react in such an extreme way after finishing second in the competition for a coveted prize awarded for the most outstanding doctoral dissertation. On November 1, 1991, with premeditation and planning, he executed five people, including professors who had denied him the honor and the student who had stolen what he deemed rightly his, before turning the gun on himself. His "eye on the prize" had become all-consuming.

This all-or-nothing perception can be especially pronounced for foreign graduate students, like Gang Lu, who come from cultures where failure is seen as shame on the entire family. Foreign students also experience additional pressures because their academic visas are often dependent upon their continued student status. Bad grades or failing comprehensive exams may mean being kicked out of more than just school.

Compounding the problem is the fact that faculty mentors, the gatekeepers to success, may be unaware of the pressures placed upon their students. At the extreme, faculty members may even sustain an oppressive relationship with graduate students, perhaps perpetuating a power imbalance they themselves endured while in graduate school. With the protection of tenure, professors may be able to exploit their subordinate students, who are afraid to jeopardize their own futures by complaining. Regrettably, not all faculty members are sensitive to the enormous and often unrestrained power they have over students.

A 40-year-old nursing student, Robert Flores, made his grievance clear through a letter sent to the news media just before his 2002 shooting spree at the University of Arizona: "The university is filled with too many people who are filled with hubris. They feel untouchable. Students are not given respect nor regard." Although the letter was not specific, one need only look at our hypothetical Professor Smith to figure out what type of campus officials Flores held responsible.

For all of those reasons, it is important that graduate admissions committees look beyond grades and test scores to discern evidence of possible academic or disciplinary problems in the backgrounds of applicants. A record of attendance at multiple institutions without completing a degree, for example, may warrant inquiry into the reasons for such transiency. In addition, faculty advisers and academic standing committees should be wary of retaining a marginal student, like Smith's graduate assistant, when the prospects for degree completion begin to appear slim. Mentors and advisers must also be alert to situations in which a student's dignity and sense of self-worth are on the line.

In view of the special concerns faced by students in graduate and professional programs, the following steps are recommended:

1. Screen graduate applicants not only for academic potential but also for personal resourcefulness. Through interviews and reference checks, admissions committees should consider closely the applicants' abilities for managing the wide-ranging challenges of advanced study.

2. Develop a thorough system of assessment for academic progress. Be prepared to withdraw students — with appropriate support — whose chance of success in a reasonable amount of time appears remote, and provide appropriate support to the failing student in finding alternative career directions.

3. Train faculty members to deal effectively with problem students and to be aware of the appropriate limits of their power over the lives of students. Assessments of student-faculty interactions need not be limited to course evaluations, but should also reflect the broader dimensions of the mentoring role.

4. Encourage and support graduate-student organizations with a focus ranging beyond just academic and professional matters. In addition, do not set expectations for graduate and professional students that would force them to abandon or ignore other important aspects of their lives.

5. Take steps to ensure that graduate and professional students have adequate mental-health insurance coverage. In addition, those students may need access to high-quality counseling services, whether through a campus facility or a contractual arrangement with an outside vendor, for 24-hour emergency needs.

Professor Smith and the rest of us obviously recognize that the number of graduate and professional students who would seriously consider murder as their only option is small, and that those who would do so may not necessarily be deterred by the enhancements recommended. These are, nevertheless, wise and appropriate steps to take, steps that may well enhance the well-being of countless numbers of students.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminal justice and of law, policy, and society at Northeastern University.



Date: November 1, 1991
School: University of Iowa
Shooter: Gang Lu, age 28
Role at School: Graduate student<

Date: December 14, 1992
School: Simon�s Rock College
Shooter: Wayne Lo, age 18
Role at School: Undergraduate student

Date: January 26, 1995
School: University of North Carolina
Shooter: Wendell Williamson, age 26
Role at School: Former law student

Date: August 15, 1996
School: San Diego State University
Shooter: Frederick Davidson, age 36
Role at School: Graduate student

Date: June 28, 2000
School: University of Washington
Shooter: Jan Chen, age 42
Role at School: Medical student

Date: August 28, 2000
School: University of Arkansas
Shooter: James Easton Kelly, age 36
Role at School: Former graduate student

Date: May 17, 2001
School: Pacific Lutheran University
Shooter: Donald Cowan, age 55
Role at School: None

Date: January 16, 2002
School: Appalachian School of Law
Shooter: Peter Odighizuwa, age 42
Role at School: Former law student

Date: October 28, 2002
School: University of Arizona
Shooter: Robert Flores, age 40
Role at School: Nursing student

Date: September 2, 2006
School: Shepherd University
Shooter: Douglas Pennington, age 49
Role at School: Parent of students

Date: April 16, 2007
School: Virginia Tech
Shooter: Seung-hui Cho, age 23
Role at School: Undergraduate student

Date: February 8, 2008
School: Louisiana Tech University
Shooter: Latina Williams, age 23
Role at School: Undergraduate student

Date: February 14, 2008
School: Northern Illinois University
Shooter: Steven Kazmierczak, age 27
Role at School: Former graduate student

Date: October 26, 2008
School: University of Central Arkansas
Shooter: Four suspects
Role at School: None
Section: Commentary, Volume 55, Issue 12, Page A42