When I was 9 years old, my dream job was to be the person who calls off school when it snows. Now that I have that job, it stinks. Over my 10 years of canceling classes because of snow, my decisions have rarely met with universal approval: Without fail, some loud constituency is fast to complain.
This past winter, the Washington area was hit with an extraordinary three blizzards, two of which occurred within a four-day period, and I ended up canceling six days of classes. Upon our return to class, and after much consultation with colleagues, I distributed a plan to make up the lost days, one of which involved taking back a university holiday on the day after Easter. For varied and goofy reasons, this one aspect of the plan produced some negative reactions, most of which fell within my level of tolerance as a provost who's been around the block a few times.
But one reaction, in the form of an e-mail message from an undergraduate, struck me. According to this student, my decision was capricious and insensitive, showing that I just didn't care about students.
The accusation felt like a punch in the stomach. It brought me back almost 40 years to a Monday afternoon in Kent, Ohio, at the height of spring on a breezy, sunny day, when it seemed that nothing in the world could go wrong. Of course, that sense of a pacific spring was illusory because much was going wrong that day. The invasion of Cambodia by U.S. forces had precipitated student protests around the country, including one at Kent State University, where I was a graduate student in the psychology department. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard lobbed tear gas to disperse the crowd. The wind blew the gas in all directions. And then came the gunshots.
I was part of the chaos. With a group of fellow students, I was distributing leaflets that contained the names and addresses of Ohio's Congressional delegation and urged people to write them letters of protest about the Cambodian incursion. Having grown up in suburbia, I was not familiar with the sound of gunshots. But a friend who was with me knew the sound, and he jumped on me, pushing me to the ground. We were in the parking lot just below the hill from where the guardsmen were firing (the famous 67 rounds in a period of 13 seconds). He probably saved my life—those who were hit seemed to be all around me.
The aftermath of the tragedy, in which four students were killed and nine others wounded, is well known. President Nixon initially condemned the students; a federal commission was appointed to investigate the shootings at Kent State and at Jackson State University, in Mississippi, where police killed two more students 10 days later; and nothing much happened. During these 40 intervening years, more students have been killed on several campuses, and we perhaps are not as shocked as we once were. But Kent State became infamous and went through some tough times.
For my part, I finished my Ph.D., got a faculty job in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved on with my life. For years I was reluctant to talk about my experience that day, perhaps as an emotionally defensive reaction. Later, I realized that I didn't want to talk about it because once I started, I couldn't stop myself, and I feared becoming a bore.
But the experience has never been too far below the surface. I did speak at length with James Michener when he was writing his 1971 book, Kent State: What Happened and Why. And in 1974, when I was a visiting scientist in Warsaw, I was summoned to the U.S. Embassy to have a deposition witnessed for, I seem to remember, a grand jury that was meeting in Cleveland, and I was also asked for testimony in civil suits that were brought by the families of the victims against state authorities.
But the impact of the tragedy on me personally was more subjective and longer lasting.
Over these last 40 years, as a faculty member and academic administrator, I find myself getting upset when I observe students getting the runaround or being treated rudely by faculty and staff members. Such episodes occur in daily life, and I've never thought that the institutions in which I work are particularly harsh places. It's just that I can't seem to control myself when I see it, and I have let loose on colleagues when I think they have been out of line with students. I find myself getting very emotional—angry and upset.
For example, 10 years ago, long after I had journeyed to the Dark Side and become a dean, I took a visceral dislike to the person who was then my boss. I know exactly the circumstance that led to my reaction to him. In a conversation, he started bashing students, in this case dismissing graduate assistants as a whiny lot who are never satisfied with the support levels of university resources. That did it for me. He had crossed a line, and our relationship continued downhill. I began looking for another job and shortly after left the institution.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm some sort of stealth guardian of students, coming to the aid of the distressed, protecting any and all. In fact, my current job puts me in the position of appeals officer for just about everyone. I like to think of myself as a fair adjudicator of those appeals. I don't think I get particularly emotional in these situations, maybe because the cases are all carefully laid out in a rational, prescriptive format. Rather, what seems to set me off are dismissive attitudes toward those who entrust their education to us and provide for our livelihood.
I trace my touchiness to the four students who died that May 4th of 1970—with so much in their future. Two of them, Allison Krause and Bill Schroeder, remain vivid in my mind's eye because I had them in class earlier in that academic year. Now that I am a father and a grandfather, privileged to witness the growth of those whom I love, I am ever more poignantly aware of the magnitude and senselessness of the loss. Along with marveling at the growth of my own family members, I've watched my students grow beyond their undergraduate years, and I've seen them move into advanced study and careers, most of them successfully.
Part of me always mourns Allison and Bill when, at the start of each academic year, I see the renewal of our academic community with the exciting contagion of youth. I think about our responsibility as educators: While academe has gone well beyond in loco parentis, we still need to protect students. Each one is precious and comes to us because we are able to help them dream big dreams and achieve them.
The medieval notion of the university still operates. It is intended to be a place buffered from the real world, where evil is present and goodness can be rare. That covenant is implicit. But of course we have seen that covenant broken repeatedly in modern America, no less at Virginia Tech than at Kent State and Jackson State. Although the loss of students who have been killed can never be repaired, we can and should honor them by doing better with the students we have.
I didn't respond to the e-mail message from the irate student who accused me of not caring after I took away a holiday to compensate for a snow day. She couldn't have known that the tragedy at Kent State is always with me. Its anniversary reminds me of how precious young life is and what a privilege and responsibility it is to usher our students into the futures that are theirs to live.