By now, most are likely aware of the crisis situation unfolding at the University of Pittsburgh. For the uninformed, Pitt and its students have been terrorized by nearly 100 anonymous bomb threats received over the past month.
Almost every building on the university’s 132-acre campus has been forced to evacuate at least once, throwing classes and student life into utter chaos. The 800-student residence halls have been hurriedly evacuated at 3:00 a.m. (more than once) so that police and K-9 units can spend hours sweeping and securing before students are allowed to reenter and (try to) sleep.
The toll on students is profound, as it would be on anyone else subjected to such a living situation: not knowing when you’ll have to evacuate next; not knowing if you are safe in your own room.
Despite full police and FBI involvement, there has been no slowing the torrent of threats. Quite the opposite, they have ramped up quite steadily. It is no longer uncommon to receive several threats for several buildings at once.
While it would be unfair to claim that any of this is the university’s fault, one would expect that through such harrowing experiences, the school would be going out of its way to ease the stress and burden on its students. After all, it’s rare that the daily living situations of college life put students potentially in harms way to say nothing of the mental and emotional harm.
In this instance, Pitt had made quite a few changes in order to ease the burden on students. They have made many courses available to finish online for the students who want to leave campus; they have extended the deadline to declare pass-fail for those whose grades are being affected by the disturbances and they are offering additional free counseling services.
However, some bomb threat situations have been critically mishandled. During one evacuation and ensuing building sweep, several resident assistants for that hall were asked by superiors to help with the bomb search.
That should strike anyone as an unacceptable request. The fact that resident assistants at any school willingly take on additionally responsibilities above and beyond those of their peers does not make it permissible to ask students to enter a building that may contain a bomb.
While that is but one especially onerous example, it underscores what we at The Loquitur believe to be a basic, if oft neglected, necessity: respect and responsibility on the part of schools toward their students.
The tumult currently playing out at the University of Pittsburgh is not a scenario many will ever have to face, and thankfully not. But it does serve as an interesting reminder of what it means to be a student, to have responsibility and the responsibility that a school should have to its students.
Just as students must (generally) commit to living within college rules, to attend class and to perform within specified academic boundaries, so too must colleges commit to their students.
Failure on the part of a student to meet any of the aforementioned requirements can result in penalties or expulsion. Stiff penalties to be sure. But what does the school then owe back to the student? Most would readily cite a good education and improved outlook for our future. But what about safety? Fairness? Understanding? Respect for the students as students?
Often lost is the fact that a university has a responsibility to its students commensurate, if not greater, than that which the students must give. Any individual student must pay respect to their school, the school however, must watch over hundreds to thousands of young adults who entrust themselves, their education and a stake in their future to the school of their choosing.
Obviously a school cannot universally promise safety (as this case indicates), but fairness, understanding and respect are far from outlandish demands. Yet, too often, we college students see them ignored. In keeping with the example at hand, Pitt simultaneously excelled and failed at different aspects of this task.
Ultimately this must serve as a lesson for all colleges and universities. Your responsibility is to your students first and foremost. Too often schools get painted in the unflattering light of self-absorption. Caring about notoriety, minimizing bad press and the bottom line above all else.
We at The Loquitur believe that reputation is not always necessarily earned but that all schools should be constantly reaffirming and reevaluating their obligation to their students for the betterment of both.