Virginia Tech: How much is a massacre worth?

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At Virginia Tech, where I taught for 10 years, the magic number was one million dollars. According to many of my fellow teachers, that was the cost of closing the campus for a day and, although I never saw any evidence that it was true, that number ruled my life. I sometimes walked to class on sheets of ice or drove to school through blinding snowstorms because of the magic number. On two occasions, I even found myself holed up in my office while a gunman was loose on campus, all because one million dollars was too much money to waste and the potential cost of car crashes, broken bones, lawsuits and shootings all paled beside the awesome power of seven figures.

On April 16, 2007, while Seung-Hui Cho was shooting students and teachers in Norris Hall, I was in my office, preparing to walk to class. My route took me near Norris, and many of the faces that later found their way onto the pages of the nation's newspapers were familiar to me, as I passed them on the sidewalk every day. Jamie Bishop, in particular, struck me; he and I had met in a technology seminar, and we always waved at each other as I walked to class and he walked back to his office.

That morning, while preparing to teach, I read a university-wide e-mail about the first two shootings. In it, Virginia Tech's administration instructed the faculty to be on the lookout for suspicious people, but made it clear that classes were to proceed as usual. I wondered how anybody could expect us to teach that day: after two on-campus shootings, my students were simply not going to be able to focus on writing papers. Still, I remembered that figure -- one million dollars -- and understood why school wasn't closed. I rushed off to class, returning a few minutes later when I found the path to my classroom blocked by police cars. The rest of the morning was spent in my building, where I was instructed to hunker down and stay away from windows. When I finally got home, I began the process of contacting all 93 of my students to make sure none had been injured.

This wasn't the first time that institutional economics had influenced my daily life at Virginia Tech. In my years there as a student, staff member, and instructor, I had seen the painful effects of budget cuts, from faculty buyouts to reduced course offerings to cuts in library spending. I had watched my department try numerous methods to reduce costs and standardize education, and had listened in horror as administrators raised the specter of off-shoring some portions of our teaching to companies in India.

Of course, there was always money for technology, and most teachers in my department had computers that were less than five years old. There was also always money for football, for new engineering buildings, and for a bright, shiny computer annex for the library. While tuition went through the roof, educational options shriveled, and class sizes grew, the university announced its plan to become a top thirty research institution. It was unclear where the money was going to come from, although the loss of the graduate program in Music gave a pretty strong indication of what the university was willing to sacrifice. A lot of students disappeared, too, as tuition increases drove them to seek cheaper educational options. Then again, since tuitions were going up everywhere, there were always fresh students to replace them.

Tight budgets also meant that there wasn't enough money for other things, like student counseling services and resources to protect faculty. In my last semester at Virginia Tech, one of my students wrote me extremely disturbing and threatening e-mails. When I discussed the situation with my immediate supervisor, it quickly became apparent that the university was unequipped to deal with the problem. After the shootings, it came out that Seung-Hui Cho had been tutored by the head of the English department after threatening Professor Nikki Giovanni. This made two things very clear: first, the department placed an extremely high value on Professor Giovanni's safety; second, there was clearly no institutional mechanism for handling dangerous or threatening students.

The department head, Lucinda Roy, persuaded Cho to seek psychiatric help, but the university counseling center allowed him to fall through the cracks on two separate occasions. This, too, followed a curious kind of cruel logic: in a strapped school that was seeking top ten research status, funding for warm-and-fuzzy things like counselors and conflict mediators was often hard to come by.

It would be easy to blame Virginia Tech for the shootings, and there's no doubt that the university bears a lot of responsibility for what happened that day. However, the commodification of higher education is not an isolated matter, and the Tech massacre could have occurred at any number of institutions. Over the past few years, it seems that universities have increasingly begun to follow a business model in which students are regarded, at least at the administrative level, as units to be processed, finished, and pushed out the door. This dehumanizing perspective carries severe consequences: corners are cut, services are slashed, and sometimes safety is thrown out the window.

Tonight, I am going to a vigil in New York's Madison Square park, where I will listen as my fellow Hokies read the names of Cho's victims and share remembrances of that day. Personally, I will try honor the way that, in comforting each other, the students and faculty turned a tragedy into the university's finest moment. Most of all, I will hope that Virginia Tech's administration may one day learn that a million dollars is a tiny price to pay for the safety of an educational community.
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