Fear, Violence, and the Perception of Risk on Campus

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Concrete neo-castles

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a middle-aged white guy I’d never seen before, hanging out near the foyer of the university building I work in. He was just sitting there on a chair, with a backpack, playing on his phone. He was still there later that afternoon. And again the next day, in the same spot. Then the day after as well, till the end of the week. If I walked to the rest room or the kitchen, or went outside on my lunch break, I noticed him just sitting in the hall, apparently waiting for someone.

I was curious, but it also started to make me nervous. Who was this dude? The building houses administrative offices – some for student support, but mostly university-wide administration. There are non-student visitors around every day. But no one sits waiting for an appointment for a week.

I started to think up increasingly dramatic possibilities. Was he someone’s stalker? These things happen. Had anyone else noticed him and mentioned it to security?

Eventually I asked one of the secretaries to one of the Provosts, because they are tend to know everything that’s going on.

Turns out, the dude was an under-cover security guard.

Apparently the recent bout of student protests around the US—and particularly the successful occupation of various university presidents’ offices this spring—had freaked some of my colleagues out. A plan was now afoot to give us all key-cards – but until they were installed, we would be kept safe by a middle-aged man sitting in the lobby playing on his phone.

As you can probably tell, I found the whole thing more than a little farcical.

What were they actually expecting one dude to do, if a group of undergrads with placards showed up? Put his foot against the door? Yell, really loud?

Or were they really expecting him to do something more serious, like take out a taser? The latter scenario, quite frankly, seems just as implausible as the former, in a nice, hyper image-conscious university like this one.

I started asking around a bit more and got the impression that there was a genuine fear among my colleagues that our building might be at risk of occupation. What was interesting, however, is that it seemed that is was people like the secretaries who were most concerned about this and had asked for the security guard, not the provosts or other higher-up administrators.

I mentioned this incident to friends working in other academic departments, who told me there is similar talk of putting key-cards on other university buildings as a ‘security measure,’ but without much discussion of who this measure is protecting them against. All of which made me start thinking about the sense of risk and danger on university campuses.

In recent years we have seen the rise of a new generation of student protests, notably those by students of color under the banner of Black Lives Matter and by young women protesting against rape culture, Title IX violations. The risk these protests pose is not a matter of physical injury, more professional. My secretary colleagues are worried their work would be disrupted. Worried enough that they want to hire a security guard.

The obvious solution to ending student protests is to talk to students about their concerns and then act to address them. To be fair, I think the university I work at is actually doing a good job of both listening and acting. This just makes it even less likely that our offices would be occupied – protest occupations are precisely a call to be heard, a demand to be listened to, by those who have been silenced for too long. My sense is that, being at a remove from the context of those conversations, the secretaries felt a genuine fear that their work was at risk of disruption.

At the same time as the rise in protests on campus in the US, however, a far more deadly threat has grown. I’m referring to the perception that there have been a growing number of murderous shootings on college campuses perpetuated by angry young men.

Yesterday there was another tragic murder at UCLA’s campus. It is horrifying how common-place these violent events appear to be – that we can talk of ‘yet another’ campus shooting. I suspect I’m not the only person working on a university campus who shivers when I hear of these events, and wonders if the next one might be in my office or classroom, one of my colleagues or students.

Of course there is a difference between actual risk and perceived risk. In Chicago last month there were 66 gun deaths, bringing this year’s tally to 243 so far. That figure doesn’t include the number of people who were shot but not killed: those who will continue to live, but with debilitating physical and psychological trauma. These deaths were concentrated not on university and school campuses, but in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, and those where higher proportions of African Americans live. [Note: this linked website has a useful breakdown of the statistics, but fairly offensive commentary and tone.] The risk in the US of being shot on a campus is still very slim, compared to the risk of being shot for simply being black or poor.

And yet this doesn’t affect our perception of risk and the fear it incites. As a middle-class white woman, I am more likely to die in a car than by being shot. But that didn’t stop me, as I drove into work this morning, from wondering whether I should put together a little emergency bag on my lunch break this afternoon. A couple of snacks, some water, a first aid kit maybe. About small enough to sit in the bottom of my desk draw and be forgotten about along with the Learn French CDs and my spare coffee mug. I know it is incredibly unlikely I will ever need it. But maybe that’s the whole point about fear: it’s irrational, but powerful enough to make you change your actions.

Given the debate about key-cards and security guards, I’ve been wondering if it’s only a matter of time before this perception of university campuses as risky spaces and likely targets of gunmen starts to affect the architecture and design of university buildings. There were reports yesterday that when UCLA’s engineering building went into lockdown, the engineering students inside devised elaborate locking devices because most of the classroom doors had no locks. I imagine this is something people will start taking note of.

Are we about to see a risk in barricaded classrooms? Giving all teaching spaces tiny windows, thick doors, and heavy locks that can shut be automatically and stay shut until police give the all clear?

If this were to happen, I wonder what effect it would have on our sense of being at risk and our day-to-day fear levels. Would it generate a constant underlying hum of terror in both students and faculty? Fear is not rational – would the constant evocation of potential violence have a potentially more deleterious effect than still (luckily) unlikely event that such measures would be needed to protect against a roaming murderer, gun in hand? Or would it be a comfort, knowing that there is at least some tiny measure of protection in the case of some potential scenarios?

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UIC’s University Hall: tiny window slits, one narrow entrance serving 20+ floors, separate secret elevator to the president’s office at the top, falcons circling the roof. Brutalist campus fortress building at its best.

There is precedent for creating more fortress-like campus buildings, or at least there appears to be in our collective imagination. How many campuses across the US have those weird 1960s and 70s concrete buildings, usually housing the upper level university administration? The squat, solid buildings that appear to make no sense, with their tiny windows, obscure entrances, and confusing corridors.

It is commonly believed that these concrete bunkers were deliberately built as a reaction against the student protests of the 1960s. The tiny windows are designed to not be broken by students throwing chairs, the narrow entrances to slow down a crowd of students storming in, the confusing corridors to not have space for students to stage a sit-in.

The alternative view is that these cramped work spaces were just the byproduct of the Brutalist aesthetic of the time. But the idea that scared university administrators built neo-castles to thwart angry students has become its own kind of social-fact.

I have worked in a couple of these kinds of buildings. Visitors get lost all the time. Colleagues complain about the lack of natural sunlight. Everyone longs to be relocated to one of the quaint old buildings or the shiny new plate-glass constructions. And it turns out that when administrators and their secretaries get nervous about student protest, they install key-cards or a security guard, not narrow door-ways.

Still, as ridiculous as I thought my colleagues’ fears were, when I first noticed an unknown guy hanging out in my building a lot, my initial reaction wasn’t that he was there to keep me safe. Instead I thought he might be a potential threat.

In the end neither architecture nor security guards can keep us safe on campus, although they might help us feel safer. The risk will only really go away when the US bans guns, saving not just the people who die on campus, but the tens of thousands of others who die across the country every year.

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