In defense of restraint

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UT’s response to the 2010 shooting in the Perry-Castañeda Library is considered a success. This perception was strengthened last week by comparisons to UT’s late and disorganized response to a bomb threat made on Friday, September 14th that led to an evacuation of campus buildings.

Leaders tend to fight yesterday’s war. In this case, yesterday’s war was an overreaction to the 2010 shooting that turned UT into a war zone in a matter of two hours, complete with tanks and a SWAT team in pursuit of a possible second shooter.

Now, only two weeks from the second anniversary of the PCL shooting, another emergency response by the administration is criticized, this time for its under-reaction. Are we being unfair?

Do we want more deliberate public statements? Yes, but this time we have the luxury of critiquing the public relations mistakes because there were no casualties. One hopes that the debate over the caller’s “Middle Eastern accent” is not the main takeaway from this week, although cultural sensitivity and accuracy are necessary in situations like Friday’s.

Do we want more informative text messages? That might help. Within 15 minutes of the 2010 shooting, the sirens were sounded, and within 20 minutes texts detailing the situation were sent out and the school was  locked down. This time they waited for an hour and a half and the texts, when they finally arrived, were vague and confusing to most students. To be fair, the university can do little for students who chose to wait near buildings instead of getting “as far away as possible,” as they were instructed. Students should have taken the extra precaution of walking another block or two away from campus.

Do we want a measured reaction? The administration seemed to improve in that regard by waiting to confirm the threat before evacuating a campus of 75,000 students and staff, and they gave themselves time to think about their situation instead creating another war zone. However, their abrupt evacuation only 15 minutes before the threatened explosion demonstrated the opposite of an “abundance of caution.”

UTPD refused to comment on its internal procedures, so I asked an officer in the Houston Police Department whether he thought 15 minutes was sufficient. “It’s hard enough to evacuate a two-story building in 15 minutes,” I was told, “let alone a university campus. You might ask your local police department about their procedures, but from my personal experience, I highly doubt it.”

UT President William Powers, Jr. spoke at a noontime press conference on the day of the bomb threat. He implied that, after much deliberation, UT administrators remained unsure whether the threat was a hoax or a real danger. Since they had no definitive answer, their hedging is understandable.

It would be unrealistic to demand that Powers reveal details of his conversations with staff or that UTPD give us a detailed timeline of their procedures. Making such information public could give an advantage to those intent on harming us. Transparency doesn’t require that the media have every detail; transparency requires that we are informed on the basics of procedure in order to report honestly the UT community. We must know that either 15 minutes is a long enough period to evacuate all campus buildings—a position that defies common sense and thus requires further explanation from the decision makers—or that the university did not find the threat credible.

North Dakota State University, which received its own threat an hour after we did, didn’t have the luxury of reflection. Their caller did not give specifics regarding time. NDSU’s administration acted quickly—within 15 minutes—by sending an evacuation notice to the 14,000 students and approximately 6,000 staff members on its two campuses.

We are not NDSU; we are one of the largest public universities in the nation. But it seems that we had ample time to both evaluate and evacuate.

I commend the UT administrators for their calmness. I’m glad they avoided the unnecessary hype of having SWAT teams in every building and a tank rolling down the street. But while I wasn’t privy to the evaluation process and am reluctant to second guess the administration, I would remind them to uphold their end of the contract with UT students. We should be willing to trust our leaders to make important decisions regarding our safety, but that trust needs to be earned. In the words of Ronald Reagan: “Trust ... but verify.”