Sunday, October 18, 2015


Security and The Mission

There are some things about security that I cannot, and will not, discuss.

That said, it’s no secret that campuses are more focused on security now than in recent memory.  The shooting at Umpqua Community College was so horrific, and so unpredictable, that it made any remaining denial impossible.  

Colleges are difficult places to secure, by design.  Most community colleges were built to be open.  Other than some tightly landlocked urban campuses, most don’t have entry gates.  Suburban and rural campuses are often relatively sprawling.  With thousands of people coming and going every day, and relatively high turnover among students, there’s nothing weird about seeing people you don’t know on campus.  I see people I don’t know every single day.  To the extent that typical shooters are young men, well, we have thousands of young men on campus, the overwhelming majority of whom mean no harm.  

As a quirk of history, roughly half of the community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s.  Security simply was not a central design principle.  Openness was.

Colleges are built on a sort of willful naivete, and community colleges doubly so.  They’re premised on the assumption that people can stretch to become better than they were when they arrived. They’re built on assuming the best of everyone. They’re built to enable certain kinds of risk-taking.  Colleges put certain kinds of stress on students -- the old joke that there will be prayer in school as long as there are math tests endures for a reason -- but those stresses are there to prod the students to better themselves.  Community colleges in particular have a certain idealism baked into their structure.  It’s usually called “the mission,” as in “we would do that, but it’s inconsistent with the mission.”  Belief in the mission is part of what motivates very intelligent and highly trained people to work for less money than they could earn elsewhere.  

The mission includes serving people nobody else will serve.  Within the sector, “open-door” admissions policies are considered a feature, not a bug.  Community colleges serve high achievers, average achievers, and folks who haven’t found their niche yet.  More so than selective colleges, community colleges are built to provide second chances.  

The wave of violence on campuses over the last few years raises several sets of fears.  The obvious one is of physical danger.  All I’ll say to that is that every college I know of is reviewing its protocols and resources.  There’s no such thing as absolute safety, but nobody wants to get the news that something awful could have been minimized if they had been more conscientious.  

The more subtle fears are about losing that culture of openness.  That culture is based on institutional practices, but also on the ways that individual people interact.  The mission encourages employees to treat every student as an opportunity, not a threat.  To the extent that a culture of fear replaces a culture of openness, the mission itself is at risk.  And distrust can become self-fulfilling.

I’ve been at this long enough to remember when the only time we thought about security was when we had fire drills.  That’s not true anymore.  To a degree, that’s a good thing; prudent security measures can prevent some awful outcomes.  But some risk is simply baked into the cake.  Deal with the public, and you take risks.  Gather thousands of young people, and you take risks.  I hope we never lose the willingness to take those risks.  They’re what community colleges are for.

And accept that most of the threats you react to will turn out not to materialize:

It's rather like being in a place where anyone in the world can pull the fire alarm, and we haven't yet figured out the equivalent of dye-packs on the alarms yet.
And some of the things that could be done are outside the institution's ability to control (I am, obviously, thinking about gun control here).

I will add that the willingness to take risks (again being obvious) extends beyond CCs to institutions such as my own, an urban campus (which has associates, bachelors, and masters programs) in a city somewhat notorious for being dangerous (Gary).
I've felt for years now that our best security feature are the Marines and other veterans on campus since the various Gulf Wars.

Like yourself, there are some things I won't mention here, partly for your reasons and partly because they might identify my campus -- and hence associate it with a few things we do that will be more effective if an intruder doesn't know about them. I also don't see the need to spread them in a blog because I know that our campus police communicate with other campus police and security teams, many who need to know probably do know some useful approaches to secure our classrooms.

I'll just say that we are not new to this challenge. We made some changes after Virginia Tech, and continue to learn whenever a minor incident shows what might or might not work in a more serious situation. The most recent change was to increase our mental health staffing on campus, a reasonable expense IMHO.

But the most important thing we do is to make security a part of every new semester meeting to be sure new people know what experienced faculty have known about for years. Communication is essential.
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