We must work together to free our lives from fear

Lester Lefton

Last week, as part of an academic conference, I participated in a panel discussion about campus safety with several other college presidents, including Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. As we talked about the need for all campuses to plan for emergencies, we nonetheless assumed that the kind of violence that shattered the Virginia Tech community 10 months ago would remain relatively rare and random.

None of us could have imagined that within a matter of hours, we would be shocked by the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University and once again searching for answers to many disturbing questions: What could make someone so violent? What is going on in our society that contributed to this latest campus tragedy?

I have no definitive answers to these deeply troubling questions. But – as a psychologist and a university president – I have given a great deal of thought to issues of security in our society and on America’s campuses in particular.

For example, how can a public university such as Kent State balance the need to ensure campus safety with the desire to share campus resources with the public we serve?

Like all public universities and most other American institutions, Kent State is open to all. In fact, we take pride in the many ways our eight campuses engage both students and the larger communities we serve – from enriching lives through cultural programming to enriching local economies through workforce-development initiatives. This balancing act between open access and optimum security is especially difficult on large campuses. Our flagship Kent campus comprises more than 1,000 acres and 125 buildings and about 25,000 students and employees. It is a “city within a city” in every way.

No one wants our cities or our centers of learning to be locked down. Public universities are – and should be – places that invite the open exchange of ideas and that open their libraries, galleries and recreation facilities from early morning until late at night. Universities are all about open access, but there is no guarantee that the violence at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities won’t be a recurring nightmare.

Despite the reality that campuses are not impenetrable ivory towers, students, faculty, staff and their families can be assured that American college campuses promote safety and security as the top priority.

Kent State, for instance, has a nationally accredited police department, and our campuses have a low incidence of crime. We have a carefully conceived, comprehensive emergency plan that is reviewed, tested and fine-tuned on a regular basis. A multi-faceted notification system – one that includes Web, telephone and text messages as well as sirens, building-to-building intercom and loudspeakers – is in place for emergencies of every kind.

The problem is not our ability to respond to an emergency; the problem is that we cannot know what to anticipate. On any given day, another Steven Kazmierczak can march into a classroom or a computer lab with a legally purchased arsenal.

As we extend our condolences and support to the Northern Illinois community, let us remember that we live in a world that requires each of us to take an active role in our own safety and the safety of those around us. That means:

• Staying alert to our surroundings.

• Becoming aware of resources that can help family, friends and colleagues find peaceful solutions to conflicts and complaints.

• Reporting to an appropriate authority suspicious people and incidents, whether a stranger or roommate, in public or in a classroom that elicit a gut feeling that something is wrong.

• And, needless to say, reporting someone who has a weapon.

As a psychologist, I know how critical early intervention can be for people in psychological pain. If you or someone you know is exhibiting ongoing depression, anger or personality changes, I urge you to act by referring him or her to a proper psychological practitioner or, as circumstances dictate, by notifying someone who can arrange for psychological evaluation and services.

Kent State operates a campus health center that offers psychological services, and every week convenes a team of campus professionals who proactively monitor and address issues that affect students, including safety and security matters.

Let us pray that the random violence of recent months will remain part of the past. We all must live our lives without fear. Let us take heart that Northern Illinois will recover from this tragedy, and that students, faculty and staff on America’s campuses will continue to generate and apply knowledge to make the world a better place every day.

Lester A. Lefton is the president of Kent State.