“I met Murder on the way
He had a face like Castleraegh”
This was written in 1819 in a poem about the “Peterloo Massacre”, by the famous English poet Percy Shelley. He was referring to Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, commonly known as Lord Castleraegh (pronounced Castle-ray for those who missed the rhyme), who, at the time of the massacre, was the Foreign Secretary of Britain.
The lines of the poem are instructive to me because they remind me, although it was not their intended purpose, that many people believe that they can tell whether a person is capable of murder, or targeted violence, simply by looking at them or by hearing a single utterance. Those who have seen killing “up close” will quickly tell you that this belief reflects rank ignorance and leads to many people being falsely accused and others, who do pose a threat, being missed.
There is an ongoing case involving Charles Shi, a computer science professor, and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. There are two sides to every story, and UW-Whitewater has declined comment because it is an ongoing legal matter. Shi’s attorney, Richard Schauer, alleges that his client, originally from China, was bullied and harassed by other faculty members. Speaking to “InsideHigherEd” Schauer said: “When you bring a person into a department who is different from the average racially, or possesses talents beyond the average of the members of that particular division or department, they will sometimes regard the individual as a virus and conceive of themselves as antibodies…..It’s a well-known phenomenon in academia.”
It is here that we get to the main issue at hand. In a conversation with a colleague, Shi, it is said by Schauer, made a remark about Virginia Tech, saying he hoped he would not be treated like Seung Hui-Cho, the shooter. On the other side, the UW-Whitewater student newspaper, The Royal Purple, reported that the University alleged that Shi said: “If I continue to get pushed too hard, this will turn out like Virginia Tech.”
The shootings at Virginia Tech, for obvious reasons, are still fresh in memories of all who work on campuses throughout the world, and the invoking of that name, now synonymous with the tragedy, other than in reference to the fine institution that it is, should never be done either lightly or to make an implicit or explicit threat. That said, just because someone makes reference to the Virginia Tech massacre does not mean that, ipso facto, they will be the next campus shooter. It may mean that they are guilty of extremely poor taste and judgment. The absence of good judgment, I will agree, may be grounds for dismissal, but this is different from saying that the speaker is the next spree killer and, for that reason alone, must be separated from their campus.
The upshot in this case was that Shi was confronted by campus police, the FBI and Homeland Security who searched his home, car and computer and determined he did not pose a threat. Shi was not, however, re-appointed to his position with this event being cited as one of the reasons for that personnel decision.
I render no opinion as to the merits of the decision not to re-appoint Professor Shi. The facts must be presented and examined in court and, in fairness to the university, there were other reasons cited for the decision that are not relevant to this piece.
What I do say is a general statement that institutions must not in any way knee-jerk in their responses to certain events or utterances from faculty, staff or students. Rather they must, as the FBI and Homeland Security did in Shi’s case, carefully weigh and analyze all of the information available and come to a decision, utilizing a reliable threat management model, as to what action best fits the case. The threat management model must be one that is based on research and that is taught, implemented and administered by those who have actually managed threat cases. Far too often decisions based on fear are made because those who teach threat management or who administer threat management programs have no practical experience and so, rather than err on the side of caution, they veer to the far side of caution and react with inexperience leading the way!
In addition to a top-notch threat assessment and management model, Institutions must also look at their own internal culture. Let us assume, for a moment, that an Asian professor referenced Virginia Tech to illustrate that he felt that, as an Asian male, he was being ostracized and treated in a hostile manner because people irrationally fear Asian men because of Virginia Tech. If someone were to say this, I would submit, this could, depending upon time, place and manner, be a legitimate use of the reference to Virginia Tech and should lead any institution to self-reflect and determine whether those of foreign birth are being treated unfairly. Again, however, I reference my earlier statement that, delivered at the wrong time and place and in an inappropriate manner, it could reflect very poor judgment and taste and a lack of professionalism.
Campuses do need to look at their environment and the way in which populations are treated. It is easy to look around and see examples of hostility toward immigrants I the media, even in higher education. As an English-American I have experienced it first-hand, I have been told that “people only think you know things because of your accent” through to the, far more blunt “you don’t belong”. So, I can personally relate to Mr. Schauer’s representation regarding how people from different cultures can be treated. I have never, however, made any reference to resorting to violence nor have I been under any illusion that my treatment was because of Virginia Tech, but then, I am not an Asian male.
The bottom line here is that people say and do things when they feel backed into a corner or bullied. The fact that they say something that can be interpreted as threatening does not necessarily mean that they pose a threat. Before anyone reacts to the statements, or the look, of another person they must first properly and fully assess the facts of the case to see if a threat is really being posed. The institution must then look critically and see if there is anything from an environment or personnel perspective that is exacerbating problems and making people feel like the only way they can be heard is through extreme words.
Extreme statements can never, and should never, be condoned, they must always be fully examined—just because someone speaks, acts or looks a certain way does not mean that you have “met Murder”!