OPINION: CMU’s troubling communication breakdown

By John Irwin

Central Michigan University failed in its important responsibility to properly communicate with students, faculty and staff last month when a man threatened “a shooting” on campus.

According to Central Michigan Life, the father of a faculty member threatened to “fire shots” in Pearce Hall while classes were underway on Oct. 30.

While police determined there was no threat, faculty members criticized the administration for its failure to communicate the situation at last week’s Academic Senate meeting. More from CM Life:

Michael Mamp, a human environmental studies faculty member, was teaching in Pearce at the time of the incident.

“We all heard the kerfuffle happening in the hallway,” he said. “The people that were involved in that event were very concerned for their safety. They were basically told by the police that they were safe. It was really concerning to me that when someone walked up and down the hallway saying they were going to shoot everyone, the initial response we got was, ‘Too bad. Teach your class anyway.’”

(Provost Michael) Gealt deemed that “an inappropriate response.”

Gealt, who revamping communication policies one of his priorities while interviewing for the job last year, acknowledged the university’s failure to notify the community of the incident at the A-Senate meeting.

“In terms of communication between faculty and students, there are some procedural problems that we did not communicate effectively,” Gealt said. “There have been discussions within the academic administration area. We are in the process of creating a new procedure.”

To be sure, the university’s response would likely have been more transparent were the threat more imminent and real (one would hope).

But the university has a responsibility to let students, faculty and the community at large know of any incident on campus that involves public safety. And it failed in that duty.

Think about it. A man walked into Pearce Hall, one of the busiest academic buildings on campus, and threatened to fire off shots while classes were in session. But the community at large was not made aware of the incident until it was brought up at the A-Senate meeting by faculty who felt left in the dark by the administrators tasked with keeping them in the loop.

One of the goals of CMU’s Crisis Response Overview, adopted in October 2012, is ensuring that the university “communicates openly, honestly and proactively with the University’s constituents, recognizing the importance of avoiding panic, speaking with one voice, and balancing individuals’ legal rights to privacy with the public’s need to know about the situation.”

Therefore, the response was an utter and complete failure by the university’s own standards.

There is nothing “open” or “honest” about keeping students and faculty in the dark about a safety situation. And there is certainly nothing “proactive” about essentially telling educators in the same building as a man threatening to shoot people to not worry about anything and go about with their classes as if nothing worrying is occurring.

This goes beyond the administration’s communication failures involving faculty and media.

Rather, the late October incident directly involved the safety of the community. It was an opportunity for the university to demonstrate its commitment to safety and the free flow of information.

Instead, CMU dropped the ball.

Gealt said CMU is re-evaluating its communication procedures, and this is certainly welcome news.

But CMU must move quickly and transparently in doing so before an incident like this inevitably happens again. There cannot be any doubt as to the university’s strategy in an emergency situation.

Until something changes, though, doubt remains.

John Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.

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