As a university president who happens to be a clinical social worker and has worked on college campuses for the past 25 years, I would like to share some thoughts with fellow presidents and campus administrators in light of the Virginia Tech University tragedy.
None of us in higher education could ever possibly imagine such a horrific experience coming to our own campus. It is our worst nightmare come true. As leaders, we are called to deal with tragic events of great magnitude, as well as those on a smaller scale. This can be very difficult, and to navigate through such situations, I offer up the following tips:
As presidents and administrators, we must first remember we are also human beings who have the same shocked reactions to events as everyone else. Be aware of your feelings (like fear, shock, disbelief, confusion, anger, hurt, guilt, sorrow, relief) and allow yourself time to express them when and where appropriate.
As soon as you learn about the event, gather your administrative team around you, as well as those in charge of safety and security if they are not part of your team. Thinking quickly is important, but thinking soundly is just as important. It is crucial to make the best decisions you can make at the moment - with student, faculty and staff safety being the first priority.
When there are so many on campus who feel out of control, it is important for administrators to appear - and be - in control. I am not suggesting we deny how we feel. In fact, it is important to let people know how you feel. But along with the feelings we experience, we must be able to assume our leadership positions.
Allow your administrative team members to do what they do best. For example, student services personnel are trained to deal with students, particularly in crisis situations. Ask your security and safety division to implement its emergency plan. This will assure that all support services from the community will be contacted, including police, medical assistance, etc. A communications plan should also be initiated to students and other university community members.
Don't feel as though you have to micromanage everything. That is why we call ourselves "teams." Allow your public relations staff to prepare statements for you. And they should be at briefings as well. Although public statements are extremely important, our first responsibility remains to our students and employees.
Make statements about the tragedy that reflect only the known facts. Do not speculate or make promises you don't know you can keep. Once people from off-campus become involved (as they should be), it is more difficult to control what happens.
Try to attend as many services, ceremonies, prayer services, etc. on campus as you can. This allows students, faculty, and staff to see you are handling things as best you can. Your presence helps to unite the campus. You often do not need to do a great deal at these events-perhaps share a few words-but your presence is pivotal.
Have someone around you whom you can trust - and preferably someone who cares a great deal about you. Take a moment now and then to step away and share what is happening to you personally. This may only take a couple of minutes, but it can make a huge difference on how you will function throughout the entire ordeal.
Restore some routine and normalcy to campus, even though it is difficult to pinpoint the appropriate time to, for example, resume classes (this is relative to the incident). This certainly does not mean that support, treatment, and services will not continue, because they must. However, routine allows for some stability and familiarity to be re-established in one's life.
If after a reasonable amount of time you are not able to function to the level you were at before the critical incident occurred, seek professional help in order to receive the kind of treatment you might need. It is a sign of strength - not a sign of weakness - to realize you may need assistance. Traumatic events can be devastating, and often times we need others to help us.
Finally, allow yourself time to grieve.