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‘Read About It In the Newspapers’

After the shooting happened, university communication failed

By Pierpaolo Barbieri, None

Barricaded in their rooms by police caution tape, students in Kirkland House did not know how to react in the stressful aftermath of Monday afternoon’s shooting. Three types of uniforms—Harvard, Cambridge, and state police—quickly flooded the area, but they provided no information. Until an hour later, the much-publicized University Emergency Communication system was mum; the House master did not contact the residents until 5:32 PM, and the only community-wide e-mail we all received was from Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds dealing with, of all things, the shuttle service. Tired of waiting afraid in her Kirkland room, Sarah A. Sherman ’09 opened her window and asked a police officer in the courtyard what was going on. He replied succinctly: “Read about it in the newspapers.”

What happened on Monday was a tragedy; we should all mourn the loss of 21-year-old Justin Cosby, who died yesterday at Beth Israel Hospital of the gunshot wound he received in the basement of Kirkland’s J entryway. Yet it is quite telling that Sherman received that sort of reply from a police officer. Proper communication is part of protection—and on Monday, the university utterly failed in that regard. Most worrisome, this is indicative of a larger trend in the way the administration has been interacting with the student body lately.

Students in the vicinity of Kirkland who heard the gunshots on Monday afternoon freaked out—and understandably so. Most of them stayed indoors and rushed to contact friends and e-mail lists about the shooting. From the Black Students Association to the Harvard Salient, rumors of the shooting spread like wildfire. Some e-mails claimed the shooting had happened outside of the Bee Club, others that more than one person had been seen collapsing from gunshot wounds on Mt. Auburn Street. Predictably, there was more misinformation than information.

But we were supposed to be ready for this. According to its website, the University Operations Center manages the Harvard University Emergency Notification System, a “high speed notification system” to alert people of emergencies. To complement that, several e-mails in the last year have encouraged us to sign up for text-message alerts from the Harvard University Emergency Management Plan, supposedly to “facilitate rapid and effective communication should there be an extreme emergency on campus.” And, to top it all off, we have the Harvard University Police Department community-advisory e-mails, for crimes that “may pose a continuing public safety threat.”

Despite the avalanche of acronyms, when an emergency materialized on Monday, chaos and fear spread through e-mail lists for an hour while all the above systems remained silent. The Kirkland master’s e-mail to his House residents beat the university’s “emergency” text message by almost 15 minutes. Most tellingly, when the first text message finally arrived at 5:45 p.m., it was both factually inaccurate and truncated: “Report of shooting near Kirkland House on Mt Auburn St. Police ask people to remain indoors and avoi [sic].” In the era of Twitter, it seems little to ask that those in charge of emergency SMS should know the number of characters that fit in one message. For the record, it is 160.

A second message 20 minutes later brought more truncation, urging students in the area to “await furt [sic]”. An hour later, a third SMS took a different approach—speculation: “HUPD believes assailants have left the area and says that it is safe to resume normal activities.” Needless to say, that half-baked sign of reassurance did not calm many. But at least it was not a cut-off warning.

It would be unfair to say that we received no email from the administration during this stressful time. Dean Hammonds emailed the College community at 5:10 p.m. to address the complaints against the proposed cuts to the shuttle service. In her message, she wrote that “I would be remiss if I did not also point out that there is more to campus safety than shuttle service, and the College has worked diligently over the last five years to increase students’ safety on campus.” Then she went on to talk about blue-light phones, designated safe pathways, and the escort service—services that hardly anyone uses. Despite the promise to look into reversing some cuts, no commitments were made.

The police response to the shooting seemed prompt and adequate, so the main shortcoming was communication. This negligence comes at a bad time for the administration. Earlier this month, when FAS Dean Michael D. Smith announced the first measures to fight FAS’s gaping budget deficit, student feedback was requested defensively and almost reluctantly, even when most of the cost-saving measures affected student life. This opacity does not inspire trust; it has not only spawned the Undergraduate Council’s grandiloquent “We Are Harvard” campaign but also fostered new rumors about further cuts. One of these claimed that Lamont Library would not be open around the clock next year—speculation that was summarily rejected by a College Library spokeswoman yesterday. What we need is honest and clear dialogue with the administration, both during emergencies and in everyday life.

The irony of Dean Hammonds’s timing notwithstanding, it is commendable that President Faust went to Kirkland on Monday evening to reassure students. That night, she was visible and accountable. And yet we clearly need to reform the emergency contact systems,so that only accurate information is disseminated and such information minimizes fear and stress. In the same light, the administration must use those principles of openness and honesty to reform the way it involves students in decision-making beyond public safety crises, particularly when these decisions affect students’ lives at Harvard. Only through dialogue can the administration foster the feeling of trust that brings communities together.

After all, the last thing we should be doing in a time of emergency is reading about it in a newspaper.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears regularly.

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