It was on a humid August morning in 1966 when shots rang out from the stately University of Texas Tower in Austin.
Ninety-six minutes later, a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Charles Whitman had wounded 43 people — 13 of them fatally — after killing his wife and mother earlier that day. We didn’t know then what was going on in his mind. We just know that he had been suffering from headaches and depression and had been in the military. What we came to know in the days that followed was that he had turned an open campus at one of the nation’s largest universities into his personal shooting gallery. He was eventually gunned down, but the aftermath produced little national discussion over his motivations. His was not a crime of passion or robbery, but of apparent personal anguish. The only venting that drew anyone’s attention is the kind of last resort no one wants to experience or talk about.
As we fast forward to the events in West Lafayette last week that left one student dead and another in jail, we have to reflect on how far we have come in having that national discussion about gun violence in public places, particularly schools and universities. It is a paradox that even though these horrific shootings occur at campuses such as Texas, Virginia Tech and Purdue, there seems to be precious little that higher education in this country is doing to raise awareness of this alarming problem that touches elementary children in Newtown, Conn., and moviegoers in Aurora, Colo.
The adult thing to say to survivors is that life isn’t fair, but the adult thing to do for this country is to prevent more tragedies by having a deliberation that is not about gun control alone. It has to be about mental health and about keeping success and failure in perspective for everyone; to recognize stress and hardship as contributing factors to some of the worst things that happen in this country.
As difficult is it is to consider, the shooting in an engineering building was “fortunate” for Purdue because only one person died. Let’s not dismiss the fact that thousands of students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me — received emergency text messages alerting them to what had happened.
The Electrical Engineering Building where the shooting occurred is one of the most visible structures on campus. A giant glass window allows pedestrians and motorists on Northwestern Avenue to literally see through it to look directly at Purdue’s main fountain and administration building, Hovde Hall. What’s worrisome is that a lecture hall where nearly 1,000 students could have been inside the hall was literally within range of the same shooter that felled a colleague. Had the shooter had a different mindset, West Lafayette could have been Austin, Texas, redux, 48 years later.
If you’re a parent, an alum, a faculty member, a staff member or just a concerned taxpayer, you ought to be concerned that not every professor acknolwedged the noise or the alert with the degree of seriousness it warranted. It’s alarming, and it merits further review not just by university officials, but officials at other universities and in homeland security offices nationwide.
Ironically, just six years ago when I worked for the Purdue News Service, part of my job was rehearsing a drill for the kind of event that happened last week. Another part of my job was to work with faculty members to comment on behalf of the university. One of the faculty members I worked with, Tim Sands, has since served as provost and acting president. He spoke on behalf of the university last week.
Unfortunately, these occasions for formal response to tragic situations in places where young people live disarmingly in an open society have become our new national normal.
Historically, when skeptics look at higher education’s shortcomings, they refer to its “ivory tower” mentality that isn’t in touch with reality. In looking at theimages of that Texas tower, the metaphor may be appropriate for our entire nation, and that’s truly sad for us.
As much as students gathered last week to hold a vigil for someone who walked among them, we all have to remain vigilant to start a national discussion on random gun violence until there are more solutions that prove higher education is not condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past and that it has a vital role to play in educating us all even if we never set foot on a college campus.
Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.