PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Reflections on a massacre
June 1, 2007
In their book, Measure of a Leader, Aubrey and James Daniels claim the best way to determine the quality of leadership is to evaluate the behavior of the followers. I want to underscore that point in this month’s column by describing to you the unity and fierce loyalty I witnessed by the Virginia Tech (VT) community in the wake of horrific tragedy.
I also want to tell you of some of the numerous examples of exceptional leadership I saw. But keep in mind, as Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said the day following this tragedy, “Words are very weak symbols of our emotions.”
â€œA gunman is looseâ€I am writing this just a week after the most devastating day of my life. As you now know, on April 16th, 2007, 28 VT students and four professors were gunned down by a 23-year-old English student from South Korea, Cho Seung-Hui. That morning, I was driving to the campus to teach 600 students in my Introductory Psychology class. My cell phone rang, and the coordinator of our Center for Applied Behavior Systems told me to “Go home, our campus is locked down. We’ve been instructed to stay away from windows because a gunman is loose on campus.”
Shocked and not quite believing what I had just been told, I returned to my home office. All day Monday I stayed glued to MSNBC as disturbing thoughts and emotions streamed though me: vexation, confusion, anger, sadness, grief, denial and extreme sorrow. These cognitive and emotional states would intermittently invade my days and nights for weeks. And these emotions intensified when the media began reporting the personal stories of the victims, including acts of heroism by some killed or injured.
Coming togetherOn Tuesday afternoon I sat in the middle of our football stadium, in the midst of 10,000 students, faculty and staff, watching a special convocation service on the large scoreboard screen. The event at nearby Cassell Coliseum, home of our “Hurrying Hokies” basketball team, had quickly filled the arena’s 9,000 seats and I was part of the outdoor overflow. This is when I began to perceive some positive aspects of this unthinkable massacre. The campus community â€” the Hokie Nation â€” was coming together to comfort each other. The University motto Ut Prosim â€” “That I may serve” â€”was coming to life.
(By the way, the Hokie Bird, modeled on a large turkey, has been the official sport mascot of Virginia Tech since 1961. But in fact, a Hokie isn’t anything at all, and has nothing to do with that orange and maroon mascot. It’s a made-up word that was added to an 1896 football cheer by a student named O.M. Stull, simply because it sounded good.)
At the service, leaders took turns trying to comfort us. After our university president clarified and validated the difficulty we all experienced in verbalizing the extreme emotions we felt, the Governor of Virginia spoke with passion about belongingness and the need to “not lose touch with that sense of community.” Then, President Bush asserted “schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning.” He encouraged us to reach out to one another with the affirmation, “You have a compassionate and resilient community here at Virginia Tech.”
That resilience was evidenced after the world-renowned poet and VT professor Nikki Giovanni delivered her rousing, almost defiant, oration. (See sidebar below.)
At the conclusion of Professor Giovanni’s short speech, students inside and outside the coliseum clapped, cheered, and chanted “Let’s Go Hokies.” Perhaps some emotional healing had already begun.
Since classes were cancelled for the rest of the week, I wondered how many students would attend the eight o’clock vigil scheduled for Tuesday evening. The vigil was planned and organized by “Hokies United” â€” a student-run alliance of several VT organizations.
I was amazed. Thousands of students, faculty and community residents gathered on the 40-acre Drillfield at the center of the VT campus. Each of us received a candle donated by local businesses, resulting in a sea of small “points of light.”
Dr. Zenobia Hikes, the VT vice president of student affairs, gave the only speech. “We will move on from this, but it will take the strength of each other to do that…. We are a community of strength. We are a community of pride…. We are a community of compassion,” she declared.
Buglers then played “taps.” The crowd stood silent for many minutes, holding their candles high. After about 30 minutes, a group of students cheered “Let’s Go,” and a group in the opposing half of the field yelled “Hokies.” The chanting got louder and louder until “Let’s Go Hokies” could seemingly be heard for miles.
As the days went by, blossoming trees on campus were draped with black, maroon and orange strips of cloth tied around their trunks. Some students and faculty stood in circles at the center of the Drillfield, hugging, praying and singing hymns. Others sat on the grass to watch the scene and ponder the horrible fate of colleagues and classmates.
An astounding remarkThirty-three Hokie stones were placed in a semicircle around the podium at the head of the Drillfield, each topped with flowers, an American flag, and a Virginia Tech pennant. Each stone included the name of a victim, and notes and memorabilia commemorating the life of the individual represented.
Yes, there was a memorial stone for the killer. But by Friday, the Hokie stone for Cho Seung-Hui was gone, though the flowers and his name card remained. Apparently, some mourners could not accept this commemoration for the gunman. Who could blame them?
I told the associate dean for the College of Science, a clinical psychologist and previous head of our Department of Psychology, I was dedicating this book to the 32 fallen Hokies.
“We lost 33 Hokies on Monday,” he responded.
I was surprised and astounded by his remark. “Can you forgive this killer?” I asked.
“It’s not about forgiveness,” he said, “but about recognizing this individual was mentally ill and his family grieves for their loss.”
I walked away thinking, “Our University is so fortunate to have this individual in a key leadership position.”
Acts of caringDuring the week classes were cancelled, the VT leadership disseminated numerous thoughtful emails, addressing ways to aid the healing process, and detailing protocol for handling classes and assigning grades. All these leadership decisions were specified as “student-centered.” And the faculty was urged to be student-centered in all decisions involving students.
Our campus was bombarded by actively caring voicemail, email, cards and poster displays from other universities throughout the week. A “condolence link” was established on the VT web site, and before the week ended more than 25,000 entries were logged, covering 81 pages.
I personally received more than 200 emails communicating concern and compassion for our plight. In addition to past students, colleagues and current acquaintances, people whom I had never met personally, or met only once many years ago, expressed sincere condolences.
Invasion of the fault-findersThe media siege on campus was not especially pleasant. “Hokie Nation Needs to Heal. Media Stay Away.” proclaimed a large, neon orange sign. Throughout the first week, TV anchors â€” Katie Couric from CBS, Brian Williams from NBC, Greta Van Susteren from Fox, and Larry King from CNN â€” reported from Blacksburg, and the clear focus of most media coverage was identifying causes of the event.
Why was the campus not locked down during the two-hour delay between the killings in the dorm and the classrooms?
How was a student with a demeanor like Cho able to reach his senior year at VT?
Why was Cho treated as an outpatient from the local mental health facility?
How could a person adjudicated “mentally defective” purchase two handguns?
How could Cho walk across the center of campus in broad daylight with guns, several rounds of ammunition, and chains to lock a classroom building from the inside?
News reporters filled the air with fault-finding questions, which VT’s leaders deftly deflected. Friends and family of victims were confronted with such loaded questions as, “Are you going to return to Virginia Tech after this disastrous event?” “Are you angry with the university for their inadequacy in preventing this incident?”
The most despicable stunt was showing the videos Cho had sent NBC. Instead of turning the horrid scenes over to the FBI and merely describing the content in a news report, NBC followed the killer’s wishes and made him infamous. This was a clear lack of leadership and emotional intelligence.
Despite the “witch hunts” and VT slamming, student reactions were overwhelmingly positive. “Of course, I’m returning to Virginia Tech, I love this place.” “We don’t blame anyone but Cho for this terrible happening.” “We Hokies stick together, and we will survive.”
Measure of leadershipWhat does all of this have to do with leadership? I say “everything.”
The Hokie spirit, inspired by leaders with clarity, focus and sensitive perceptiveness, is capsulated by the following excerpts from a campus-wide email from our Dean of the College of Science: “Virginia Tech is still a vibrant and nurturing community… We are bruised but we are not daunted. Even after the reporters leave, and national and international attention turns elsewhere, we will still be here for one another, and we will remember.”
Classes resumed on April 23rd, one week after the slaughter. University leaders were organized and well-prepared. More than 250 mental health counselors, including several graduates of our Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, traveled long distances to be available for our students. Every class in which the victims were enrolled had at least one counselor and staff volunteer on hand throughout the class. Three counselors were assigned to each of my large introductory psychology classes.
But was all the preparedness necessary? Would VT classes be well attended? Yes indeed. We were all surprised to see so many students in our classes. Practically everyone returned and attended their Monday classes â€” another measure of campus leadership.
Spontaneous leadershipThroughout our ordeal, which is far from over, we witnessed numerous examples of leadership from every dimension of our campus community. And one leader’s actively caring efforts enabled helpful leadership from others. Here’s an example:
On Monday afternoon April 16th, Tod Whitehurst, a VT employee and a nationally certified massage therapist (CMT), was sent home from the devastated campus. He immediately got on the phone to local members of the massage community and to the Blue Ridge School of Massage & Yoga, where he is a part-time instructor. Within 24 hours, he and Valerie Beasley, CMT, also a graduate of the school and a member of the local Red Cross, put massage therapists to work in churches, at the Inn at Virginia Tech where grieving families were gathering, at the university’s Cook Counseling Center, and other Virginia Tech locations. Both Tod and Valerie spent long hours on campus, providing nurture and stress relief to students, families, staff, faculty, EMTs, police, counselors and clergy. On-site massage continued at various locations on and off campus through May 10.
Bottom Line: It takes world-class leadership to bring the best out of people in such trying circumstances as we experienced at Virginia Tech. I am extremely proud to be a 38-year veteran of our Hokie Nation, and I am eternally grateful for the special leadership that enables and empowers us all to be the best we can be. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.
SIDEBAR: â€œWe are Virginia Techâ€ by Nikki GiovanniWe are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech.
We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech.
The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.