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A simple plan


The undergraduate who had been writing poems about killing people showed up for his appointment in my office carrying a black canvas backpack. He was slim and dark-haired, his mouth torqued into an uneasy smile. I had spoken several times about his violent ramblings to the campus police and to the university’s office of mental health, and this was what they came up with: I should invite the student to my office and calmly begin a conversation with the following question: “Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”

They didn’t specify a course of action if the answer was yes.

My office is small and square, with glass on three sides; an oversize desk takes up most of the floor space. I seated the undergrad and his backpack in the corner, leaving the door ajar so he was partly behind it. In the open doorway, I seated the student’s graduate teaching instructor — a shy, soft-spoken young woman working on her master of fine arts in poetry. It was she who had reported to me, her faculty supervisor, that despite clear and repeated instructions, the undergrad was writing things that had nothing to do with class assignments — things that made the other students afraid.

She was to accompany me in the subtle art of interrogation, and the two of us had made an agreement: At any sign of a problem, she was to sprint out of the office, assuming that I would be immediately behind her. In order to follow us, the student would have to squeeze somewhat awkwardly between my desk and the propped-open door. . .

I realized I was avoiding a return to The Question. Perhaps stalling for time, I asked about hobbies. What did the student do when he wasn’t studying? Did he have an outlet for relieving stress, maybe something outdoors? Yes, he said, the backpack slouched against his leg like a faithful dog — guns. He’d been taking lessons at a shooting range.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of intervention that should be outsourced (insourced?) by a university’s ever-expanding administration to the school’s faculty, although it doesn’t surprise me that it was.

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  • Barry Freed

    What was the administration thinking? If it must be outsourced to faculty then surely it should be outsourced to adjunct faculty.

    • Nobdy

      If an adjunct is shot by a student at one teaching job do they get leave from their other teaching jobs at other schools?

      Do they at least get a parking spot close to the classroom while they’re recovering?

      Okay, that last one was a joke. Adjuncts getting parking. Absurd.

      • ruviana

        Well, when I was adjuncting sometimes I got parking. Of course, my car was my office so there’s that.

      • Hogan

        If an adjunct is shot by a student at one teaching job do they get leave from their other teaching jobs at other schools?

        What do you think you are, a Teamster?

      • Manny Kant

        Schools I’ve taught at in the suburbs generally offer parking for adjuncts. Not really true for the ones in Philly.

    • wjts

      Consultants have urged several universities to adopt the Megan McArdle plan and have a gaggle of adjuncts rush student shooters – any survivors get first pick of class assignments for the next semester; sole survivors will be rewarded with a one-year, non-renewable temporary associate visiting underlecturer position (salary $26,000; no benefits; no library borrowing privileges; must teach 4/3). If there are no survivors, who cares? – it’s not like the shooter shot a collie, just some adjuncts.

    • Tybalt

      Ah but just think, if they take out tenured faculty, they can be replaced at a lower cost by adjuncts. The savings!

      • Barry Freed

        I thought wjts was on the right track above but you show the makings of a truly great administrator with your fine proposal.

  • Nobdy

    Well administrators can’t do it. They’re too valuable. Just look at their salaries. The market has decided that they are worth much more than mere faculty members.

    Plus if someone gets shot you don’t have to buy them out. I’m not saying that college administrators WANT expensive senior faculty to be murdered so they can save money on teaching and increase their own pay, but I’m also not NOT saying it.

    • twbb

      The work that administrators do is so valuable that they typically hire several administrators with overlapping responsibilities at exorbitant pay to make sure it gets done.

    • Glen Tomkins

      There actually is a valid reason you wouldn’t want college administrators to interview a potential sociopath. You want at least one party in that conversation to not be a sociopath.

  • ChrisTS

    I was amazed at many of the comments over there. Lots of people seem to think faculty can force students into counseling, refuse to teach their courses, or contact a student’s parents without permission. Others felt she was insufficiently sympathetic to this kid who scared her.

    • anthrofred

      Right, the one about how they should encourage and help the student do volunteer work was pure NYT commenter gold. Fuzzy wuzzies cure everything!

    • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

      Yeah, the blaming of the writer over there is just awful, and gendered to boot. I especially liked the comment from the guy (a physician, FSM help us) who declared that “a socially capable male faculty member (not a closed-mouthed academic-type)” should have met with the student and possibly taken him to a shooting range.

      • Este

        I was appalled by that as well. Luckily there were some comments pointing out that this is a ridiculous and abusive thing to demand of a professor. If the guy were dangerous, guess who would have been his first victim?

        That god-awful physician can go straight to hell. If the “socially capable male professor” handled it and got shot, this physician would dismiss him as a weenie.

      • Pat

        It’s such a good idea I think the man submitting it should volunteer for the job.

  • efgoldman

    How, in any even halfway sane universe, is this any kind of faculty responsibility?
    And if the prof and grad student report something that gets the kid confined, aren’t they liable for a a lawsuit? Did/Will the college indemnify them (silly-ass question, I know.)
    This is the other side of the “don’t tell anyone – especially the cops you were raped” coin. and just as much pure undistilled bullshit.

    • Nobdy

      I have known people who universities have told “You need to get therapy or you will be forced to take a medical leave of absence and leave campus.”

      My understanding is that this is not an actionable procedure for a school to do, since they aren’t reporting anything to anyone.

      In the case of the people I know it was just garden variety depression (though severe.)No threats.

      • efgoldman

        I have known people who universities have told “You need to get therapy or you will be forced to take a medical leave of absence and leave campus.”

        Fine, but is it a faculty member’s job to evaluate the student for exile?

        • Nobdy

          Obviously not. It should be the administration or, if threat seems imminent, security.

          It’s antithetical to the student/professor relationship.

        • Pat

          The only case I know of happened through the health center contacting the administration. Of course, that requires the student to talk to a counselor, which is more likely in depression/onset of schizophrenia than in the planning of a murderous rampage.

    • chris

      How, in any even halfway sane universe, is this any kind of faculty responsibility?

      I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been to one.

      And if the prof and grad student report something that gets the kid confined, aren’t they liable for a a lawsuit? Did/Will the college indemnify them (silly-ass question, I know.)

      IANAL, but I think if there’s an actual college policy telling profs to do something like this, any potential plaintiff’s attorney would most likely sue the college in the first place.

      The real trick (from the college’s point of view) would be finding a way to get profs to do this kind of thing while *also* being able to plausibly deny that it is part of their job, so that the way they do it is solely their responsibility and not the college’s as employer.

      On the other hand, if their report was in good faith and reasonable based on the information available to them, I’m not sure such a suit would go anywhere in the first place.

      • Richard Hershberger

        IANAL, but I work for one. You always want to get the deep pockets into the case. This isn’t to say that the prof wouldn’t also be named as a defendant, of course. There are good reasons why you would want her in it, too. But hoping that at the end of the day the prof will be able to write a big check isn’t one of them.

        That being said, just reporting something is unlikely to be actionable. Especially if the report was true. If you could show malice, or at least gross negligence, then you might have something. The idea that you can get big bucks by suing for some silly thing is a lie promulgated by insurance companies, who dislike paying out on non-silly things and want to convince the public that all lawsuits are frivolous. This lie is aided and abetted by the media, who love a “silly lawsuit” story but certainly aren’t going to spend the time to find out if there is something to it; and if it really is frivolous, the media certainly isn’t going to report anything so boring when it gets thrown out of court.

  • Izzy

    Much has been said about administrative bloat on campuses. If this situation wasn’t a job for administration, what possibly qualifies?

    • Nobdy

      Delegating. For example the Vice Sub-Dean of Student Mental Health might say “Hey Professor so and so, put down that book and talk to this dangerously unhinged student.”

      $170,000 a year with a full time assistant.

      • anthrofred

        Well, the assistant would actually call the professor, based on an e-mailed note/cocktail napkin from said Vice Sub-Dean. It’s important to divide the labor, you see. Leads to efficiency.

        • Warren Terra

          No, if they called the professor, the professor might argue, or ask for clarification. This is why there’s intra-campus mail, and watermarked heavyweight stationary.

          • anthrofred

            How many TA slots would need to be eliminated to get an Autopen?

            • AA VII

              No Autopen as it looks fake. The assistant gets a $5K incentive bonus for high skilled forgery.

      • Ken

        It’s probably wrong to think that the professor should look the student right in the eye and say “The Vice Sub-Dean of Student Mental Health is having an affair with your girlfriend.”

        And yet I do think it. I am a bad person.

        • Karla

          Said student would probably kill an innocent woman first, and then possibly others, and either kill himself or be taken out by security/police before ever reaching the dean, so yeah, bad person.

          • Este

            Nah, the impulse behind the fantasy is a wholly sympathetic one. Ken’s not saying he would do it.

            • Ken

              You’re both right. I would never do it, but I do think it.

              The same thing happens anytime someone mentions John Yoo. I think, “He really should be waterboarded for a couple of days, then subject to physical pressure short of organ failure until he tells me what I want to hear, which is that Cheney and bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks. Then we can expand the investigation until all the conspirators are found.”

              I’m just a bad person.


  • NS

    The article said that the poems alone weren’t enough to compel counseling-is this true at most schools? When can counseling be compelled as a condition of remaining a student? Just credible threats of violence against either others or oneself?

  • dimmsdale

    Wait a sec, here, 2 of the (corporate) places I work have had fairly lengthy “how to handle a shooter in the building” classes that all staff was required to attend. Seriously, doesn’t academia do this?

    • Prof_K

      I was surprised by the same, particularly after VA Tech, when it finally appeared to become the norm. FWIW, none of the institutions I’ve worked for and with ever handled such a situation like this–short of handing the student a weapon, I’m having a difficult time imagining a worse way to intervene. I’m baffled that there is one out there with its head so resolutely in the sand. Or elsewhere.

    • postmodulator

      My soon-to-be-former-academic-employer hasn’t done that, and they’ve had a shooter in a building before. Building next to mine, even.

    • Thom

      My liberal arts college had such a session a year or so after Virginia Tech, but it was voluntary. And the chief of campus police has addressed faculty meetings a couple of times about shooter situations.

    • justaguy

      At my university they added campus shooters to the helpful What to Do in Case of an Emergency signs.

  • politicalfootball

    I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure asking someone whether they are planning homicide is unconstitutional, if the subject of the interrogation intends to carry out the plan with a gun.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Well, unless you’re asking if you can help!

  • Dave

    The number of educational institutions who are happy to compel unqualified people to interact with mentally unstable individuals never ceases to amaze me.

    Students shouldn’t have to attend those professors’ classes if they make them feel unsafe.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Trigger warning: this course will be taught by Professor Rudolph.

  • DAS

    I guess my school does things better than most: not only do we offer adjuncts parking, but we have a “students of concern” system whereby you report things like this to a committee that meets and discusses the student’s issues and makes recommendations as to what to do. Once I report the student, it’s out of my hands, and nobody has me as a professor do the intervention (unless, I would imagine, there would be some sound reason to have me do it … e.g. if I had a certain rapport with the student).

    That being said (and this shocked my wife, who has experience in employment law and was, before she became a lawyer, a social worker and who worked in her previous job as an investigator), our school has done no drills or otherwise trained us in what to do if a shooter is on campus. I happen to have a gas mask (I am allergic to milk, so when I make casein-based bacterial media, I need to wear a mask … so when I ask for a mask, they give me this respirator unit because they don’t have any surgical masks or dust masks): should I just whip up some tear gas?

    In re costs, of course, while certainly our admin needs a little bit of paring down, our problem with rising costs can pretty much be laid on decreasing state support even as running our campus (energy costs, the need for better scientific equipment for training students, the need to expand our buildings to accommodate increasing enrollment, etc) costs more and more money.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    It could be worse: where I went to school (liberal arts college of 1500 students), the campus office of mental health was basically a bowl of Prozac. Although come to think of it, that might have handled this situation better…

    • Pat

      Life is a bowl of Prozac?

      Academia in the future, maybe.

  • justaguy

    As a PhD candidate who had my department chair accuse me of being a potential mass murderer, I agree that academics shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re responsible for monitoring the mental health of their students and making interventions. They don’t do it very well.

  • evodevo

    From my hubby, who taught at a small Ky community college for over a decade in the aughts:
    Just another adjunct responsibility?
    A good question. How about being the only instructor teaching the only class at night in an empty building? Or teaching day or night where there is no security at all? Or sitting outside at night with a student until her parents show up to take her home? Or where there are no procedures to follow when you believe that you have a dangerous or psychotic student (functional sociopaths are not a problem)? Or when a large number of students’ tuition is being paid by Vocational Rehabilitation and one announces to the class their history of incarceration, involuntary hospitalizations, and/or having been wards of the state? Or when a student tells you to watch out for the employer, boyfriend, or husband on whom she has taken out a restraining order? Or when one of your students is on the run for accessory to multiple armed robberies? Or the gay guy who tells you about his risky sexual behavior? Or the kid that you know is using due to unusual behavior? Or teaching on a campus (entire college in my case) where you are the only licensed mental health professional, and where there are no counselors hired or no contracts with any organization to provide mental health services? When you almost know for sure, but cannot not prove, that your student is carrying a concealed deadly weapon (and you don’t blame them for doing so)? And when you are not supposed to follow the ethics of the profession and state law on reporting child abuse, elderly abuse, and domestic violence because it conflicts with the policy and procedures of the college as determined by a secretary who works for the division chair as a violation of student confidentiality? When the administrator simply does not want to know? When you absolutely know that you are the one who knows the most about your students and these issues? For $1550 per course a semester? You probably think I am making this up. You can’t fix stupid, but you can quit. Of course I must have been stupid for doing this for 12 years. Maybe I did have a small effect, but I will probably never know. I like to think that I did. Fool that I am.

  • mch

    At my liberal arts college (no grad students to intervene), we are constantly advised by administrators (and have been for decades) to turn all disturbing problems of anything remotely like this over to deans immediately (they will engage professional help, if needed — plus, they are collators: they hear not just from you or me, but from others, too). Which leaves plenty of room for uncertainty — also acknowledged by said deans. We’ll work on this together.

    Take rape, or eating disorders, or depression. (All common, unlike the problems described here.) So, a student comes to a trusted prof/parental-or-big brother/sister figure with her or his problems (usually expressed so indirectly at first — as if we hadn’t already noticed something wrong, through class, through papers — do students have any idea what they reveal through papers? I teach literature, btw.) We talk. 90% of the time, the student is just going through an adolescent “rough patch.” By being there to listen, we help ensure that this is just a “rough patch.” It’s the 10% (I’m making up these percentages) that worry you. Have I handled that right? When do I reach the dean-contacting point?

    I guess I’m saying: you teach 18-22 year olds, and you have taken on a difficult responsibility, even with the most enlightened deanly support. And you ARE responsible. Sorry. The admin here seems eager to avoid responsibility, but we’ve heard only one side. Badly lacking from this account, any sense of the teacher’s engaged concern for her student or his classmates. It is all about her (and the grad student). I dunno. I found this piece self-serving.

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