Friday, May 6, 2011

Meeting Murder or Overreacting?

“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”!


  1. A Chancellor-EmeritusMay 6, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    Outstanding! Sorry you were treated that way, likely petty jealous or other character flaws on the part of those maligning you. You, and your opinions are welcome!

  2. I read the Inside Higher Ed piece, this is a far better analysis of the issues, well written and argued. I also agree with the last poster that you are welcome here and, from your writing, it is your intellect and not your accent that makes you very intelligent!

  3. Caught this on ATAP Linkedin! Great advice, just wish more would take it. Too many institutions keep people on or keep them off threat management teams because of position or politics. That is going to cause problems, lawsuits and likely criminal charges down the line. I would hate to justify why someone with no experience (or who had lied about experience) was on a team.

  4. Some people who show poor judgement are promoted!

    Always enjoy reading these posts on ATAP server!

  5. GREAT post, thank you for writing. Too often people do overreact to the detriment of all involved. I know that my institution (in New England) have been guilty of discriminating against overseas faculty and staff. It was subtle, not the all out blatantly illegal discrimination you suffered, but we did take action against those responsible!

  6. A brilliantly written piece that is as applicable here in the UK as it is in the US. from your article and then your bio I am very pleased to see a British subject doing so well, and doing som much for, the U.S. It is a shame there are some who will always be xenophobes, just as it is a shame there are those who will always jump to conclusions. Masterfully done!

  7. Very well said, sir, very well said!

  8. Very insightful analysis, and knowledge of history and literature. I am interested to know whether you feel campuses that do respond more aggressively to mentions of VT are likely to be "punished" by juries for that or whether you feel, as many do that juries would understand and, themselves, err on the side of caution.

    As an aside, I am assuming the slurs at you were in the private sector as any administrator at a university who would say those things would be fired. They are akin to the use of the vile "N" word to an African American (and I am African American)

  9. Mr. Romary, I found this through ATAP on Linkedin and must say it nicely summarizes the reason for effective threat management rather than knee-jerk reactions.

    I have also found, at my institution, that politics and jockeying for position often do get in the way of effective hiring decisions, promotion decisions and firing decisions in addition to threat management. Unfortunately, insecure people tend to go on the attack, often together, and run-off the qualified.

  10. At our university we have administrators, one in particular, more concerned with being seen and being on boards rather than getting work done. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is seen to be outshining her or who does not fit her profile of a lackey will be bullied or isolated. It is, therefore, easy to see how a pretext can be created for firing someone and what better pretext than "they were talking about Virginia Tech".

  11. Nicely done, I agree that combining threat management with mood assessment and detection of deception would be a great combination of skills that universities should all be looking for. Good piece, keep them coming!

  12. A voice of reason! Thank you! Unfortunately, what occurs on campuses, is not reason, but racism, classism, sexism, and hatred for the 'other,' or any one who does not 'fit' into the norm--- not blond, not blue eyed, not compliant and often assuming an anti- hegemonic male and female appearance and demeanor, too honest, too vocal, etc. In particular, in rural small town America, the price one pays for being an "other" in academia (from working class background, a minority faculty, a faculty on a work visa) is being labeled a 'threat.' This is coupled, and justified with, a high level of scrutiny by peers and administrators directed toward these targets along with the creation of false narratives about the individual(s); these narratives are repeated over and over through gossip and report writing to demean, defame and injure the target. All the while, the underperforming, unqualified, but very compliant faculty are never scrutinized. And as the "othered" individuals excel, which they often do, they become targets for increased bullying and mobbing. Due to personality (not vicious) or culture, they often lack the political skills to survive the mounting and concerted efforts that their 'colleagues' put into destroying their reputations, livelihood, and Life----- through constant surveillance that includes 'threat management teams' who secretly spy on them and aim to provoke them to anger so they can now justify them a 'threat.' What happens to the targets is they become more reclusive, and adopt behaviors akin to having post traumatic stress disorder which can further justify the target as 'abnormal.' Institutional racism and classism is the cancer within higher education. Higher education work environments are some of the most vicious, racist, sexist, classist, and callous places I have encountered and full of some of the most dangerous, pathological and sick people.