Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Failures of Leadership

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has announced the formation of a special commission to investigate the massacre at Virginia Tech. Like all blue-ribbon panels, the Virginia Tech commission (headed by a former state police superintendent) will spend months sorting through the evidence and interviewing witnesses, before issuing a final report and offering recommendations.

At the risk of sounding presumptive, I'll wager that the panel will cite "leadership failures" that contributed to the worst mass-murder in U.S. history. Based on what we've learned, it seems clear that university leaders and public safety officials could have done more to warn students and shut down the campus after the first shooting at the dormitory. In the wake of a similar threat last August (when an escaped convict killed two police officers near the university campus), it seems strange that Tech officials decided to continue classes with a gunman potentially at large.

But the leadership failures that exacerbated the crisis go well beyond decisions made on that fateful Monday morning. As Chief Buddy might say, leadership is the art of making the tough calls and following through, even when you're swimming against the current of "prevailing" attitudes and bureaucratic inertia. Viewed through that prism, it becomes painfully obvious that a number of authorities at Virginia Tech were unable (or unwilling) to make the tough calls, choosing instead to muddle through an escalating situation, triggered by a student with obvious mental problems. And by choosing that path of least resistance, various individuals at the university helped set the stage for Monday's massacre.

Think about that as you review the recent history of Cho Seung-hui at Virginia Tech. In 2005, he was accused of stalking two female students; one of the women was so concerned that she contacted university police. However, she refused to press charges and Cho was referred to the university discipline systesm. What happened after that remains unclear. We also know that Cho was taken to a mental health facility that same year, after his parents voiced concerns that he was suicidal. A Virginia magistrate declared Mr. Cho an "iminent threat, " but he was released after a short stay, and there's no record of any follow-up within the university system.

Fast forward one year. Cho's twisted, violent submissions in a poetry class that so disturbed the professor, Nikki Giovanni, that she had him removed from her course. Ms. Giovanni also reported that Cho's behavior so unnerved other students that some stopped coming to class. She reportedly threatened to quit if Cho remained in her section.

The reaction of the English Department is revealing. Rather than fully investigate the potential threat, they gave Cho a tutor. Lucinda Roy, a co-director of Tech's creative writing program, taught Cho for the rest of the semester. Apparently, Ms. Roy was also disturbed by her student; she told Good Morning America that she worked out a "code word" with an assistant, to be used if she ever felt threatened by Cho. Ms. Roy says she never had to use the system, and Cho remained a student in the English Department.

There are also indications that concerns about Cho reached the department chairman and the dean, but they were (apparently) never elevated beyond that level. And while the department chair apparently contacted campus police about the situation, there is no record of any follow-up. Of course, in today's politically-correct college environment, it's quite possible that the police couldn't share information with a department chair (and vice-versa), as long as a crime had not occurred. But the failure to elevate the problem--and the lack of contact between the English Department and university police--suggests a desire to handle matters internally, and avoid creating a bigger stir. At no point did anyone attempt to connect the various dots and suggest that Cho Seung-hui was a public safety threat who did not belong at Virginia Tech.

Obviously, hindsight is always 20/20, and it's perhaps a bit unfair to judge the decisions of faculty and administrators at Virginia Tech. Afterall, Tech is a large school--26,000 students--and amid the crush of teaching, research and running a large academic department, it's not that hard to lose track of a student who (before this week) appeared to be an occasional problem, at best.

But, as someone who's taught at both the secondary and the university level, I also understand that such excuses are specious, at best. Even at the largest institutions, professors and administrators have an obligation to protect their students from threats within the university setting, and work with appropriate agencies to alleviate those problems. The behavior and "writing" of Cho Seung-hui set off a series of alarm bells at Virginia Tech. Regrettably, those alarms were viewed as isolated incidents by departmental chairs and university administrators, and not as part of a larger, more sinister pattern. The inability to consider that possibility is clearly a failure by leaders who were aware of the situation, and in a position to address it.

In some respects, the "handling" of Cho Seung-hui is reminiscent of an incident that rocked the Air Force in the mid-1990s. On 24 June 1994, a B-52 crashed during a rehearsal for an airshow at Fairchild AFB, Washington, killing its four crew members. The subsequent accident investigation revealed that the aircraft commander, Lt Col "Bud" Holland had routinely violated safety procedures for years leading up to the crash. While Holland was considered an exceptionally skilled "Buff" pilot, he also took extreme risks with his aircraft and crew, sowing the seeds for the disater that ensued. Other crew members complained about Holland--some even refused to fly with him--but those warnings went unheeded by the leaders of Fairchild's 92nd Bomb Wing. As one observer later noted, "Holland fit the mold of the rogue aviator, one who was popular and respected, socially skilled, and knew which rules he could break, when and with whom.

Lt Col Holland was not crazy--far from it. But, like Cho Seung-hui, he was a debacle waiting to happen. And like the faculty leaders at Virginia Tech, the officers in charge of the 92nd Bomb Wing failed to grasp the severity of the problem in their midst. Holland was never officially reprimanded for his unsafe conduct, and kept pushing his aircraft beyond the limits of the flight envelope. In fact, Lt Col Holland told other crew members that his "career" ambition was to roll a B-52--an aerodynamic impossibility for the heavy bomber. At the time of the fatal crash, Lt Col Holland's aircraft was well outside permitted parameters for a low-level turn.

At Fairchild , the failure to thoroughly investigate, document and sanction unacceptable behavior--by those in leadership positions--resulted in the loss of a combat aircraft and four aircrew members. I believe similar mistakes will be uncovered by the investigation at Virginia Tech. Expelling Cho Seung-hui would have been a difficult task, and in some ways, it would contravene the principles of a university. But making that tough call --and following through--might have somehow prevented the terrible bloodbath in Blacksburg.

1 comment:

JP said...

Sadly, I think this guy was one of those who was going to do something no matter what.
No guns available? He likely would have visited a Hobby shop, hardware store, garden supply, and a gas station, and made a big bomb. Most of what would have been done when it should have been, likely would not have stopped him from his misguided mission of "getting even with rich people" either. Every precaution the university could have taken would have just moved the target of his ire somewhere else, or moved the date on which he made his move.
Sometimes, people are just wacko, but they maintain enough social functioning to not get removed from the society they so hate.

So much could have been handled better, so much more could have gone wrong.