Leadership & Governance

Charles Steger, Who Led Virginia Tech During 2007 Shootings, to Retire

Alex Brandon, AP Images

Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, said of the 2007 massacre: "You do the best you can with what you know at the time. And we did the best we could with what we knew."
May 14, 2013

Charles W. Steger, whose legacy as Virginia Tech's president will be forever linked to the mass shootings there in 2007, announced on Tuesday that he planned to retire.

Mr. Steger was thrust into the national spotlight on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech student, killed 32 people and himself on the campus. The shootings spawned changes in how colleges across the nation handle security and raised troubling questions about whether lives might have been saved if the Virginia Tech campus had been alerted of the danger sooner.

"It was a horrible tragedy," Mr. Steger, 65, said in an interview on Tuesday. "The worst mass murder ever in the history of the United States. It's part of our history. Certainly not the defining part, but it's something we're cognizant of every day."

Mr. Steger, who was named president in 2000, remains at the heart of continuing litigation stemming from the shootings. The Virginia Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the fall about whether Mr. Steger should be put on trial for his response to the massacre. The lawsuit was filed by the families of two of the slain students who did not agree to a settlement offer from the Commonwealth of Virginia accepted by 28 other families. (Two victims' families did not file wrongful-death claims against the state.)

On the morning of the massacre, Virginia Tech officials waited more than two hours after a fatal shooting in a campus dormitory to send out an e-mail that warned of a "shooting incident." Minutes after the warning, the same gunman, Mr. Cho, opened fire in an academic building.

Asked if there was anything he might have done differently knowing what he knows now, Mr. Steger said on Tuesday that he had acted in "real time" with the advice of law enforcement.

"You do the best you can with what you know at the time," he said. "And we did the best we could with what we knew."

A Question of Notification

The tragedy led to the development of emergency-alert notification systems, which allow campus administrators to quickly send e-mails and text messages to thousands of people. The systems are now commonplace on college campuses. Last month students at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth were instructed via text message to evacuate the campus, once university officials learned that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing was enrolled as a student there.

In 2007 "the capacity to carry out notifications wasn't even present," Mr. Steger said. "People lose sight of that. They assume everything present today was present then, but it really wasn't."

In March 2012 a jury in Montgomery County, Va., awarded the parents of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde, both students killed in the shootings, $4-million each. A judge later reduced that amount to $100,000 each, the cap in civil cases against the state.

The Pryde and Peterson families are appealing a judge's decision to dismiss Mr. Steger from the lawsuit. Robert T. Hall, a lawyer who represents the families, said it was important for the president to be held accountable.

"Ultimately somebody is the decision maker," Mr. Hall said. "It is way too easy to hide behind the larger named entity. We felt he had personal culpability."

For Mr. Steger to be held personally liable, the plaintiffs would have to establish "gross negligence" by the president. That is a claim, Mr. Steger said, that "I find absurd, quite honestly."

In addition to the civil case filed by victims' families, Virginia Tech has faced questions about whether delays in the university's warnings about the shootings constituted a violation of a federal campus-crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act. Last August, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, upheld an initial ruling, on its second appeal, that Virginia Tech had violated the law. The university is appealing a $32,500 fine that stems from that finding.

Period of Growth

Mr. Steger has a long history at Virginia Tech. He received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the university in 1970 and stayed on to earn a master's degree in architecture and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and engineering.

In 1981, when Mr. Steger was 33, he became dean of the university's College of Architecture and Urban Studies. He advanced to vice president for development and university relations, and ascended from that position to the presidency.

Virginia Tech's national profile has risen under Mr. Steger. The university, which brought in more than $1-billion in private funds during Mr. Steger's tenure, created schools of medicine and biomedical engineering. In 2004, Virginia Tech joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the Hokies won four conference football titles in their first eight years of play.

Sarah M. Karpanty, president of the Faculty Senate, said Mr. Steger had good relations with professors and "set the tone for shared governance" at the university. The president meets monthly with Faculty Senate leaders, with whom he has unvarnished dialogue, she said.

"He really is willing to speak candidly with faculty and to have faculty speak candidly with him," said Ms. Karpanty, an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation. "That was surprising and refreshing. Speaking to peers on other campuses, I know that's not always the case."

Ms. Karpanty said she would prefer not to comment on the particulars of Mr. Steger's actions on the day of the 2007 shootings, but she broadly complimented his steady leadership in the wake of the massacre.

"He was effective," Ms. Karpanty said. "And not all leaders would have stayed the course through such a hard tragedy. I have a lot of respect for the fact that he did stay the course."