Despite Bomb Threats, U. of Pittsburgh Faculty and Students Strive to Keep Semester on Course

Keith Srakocic, AP Images

Because of dozens of bomb threats at the U. of Pittsburgh over the past two months, the institution has set up security checkpoints at building entrances. Long lines have caused some students to be late to class.
April 10, 2012

A rash of bomb threats has severely disrupted routines at the University of Pittsburgh over the past two months, but faculty and students are striving to finish the semester as "normally" as possible.

Some professors have moved classes outdoors or online and are holding office hours in coffee shops, while students are studying and tackling make-up work in libraries or wherever they can plug in a laptop power cord. At the same time, administrators are stepping up their efforts to keep the campus safe.

The bomb threats began on February 13, when a message was found scribbled on a bathroom wall in the university's Chevron Science Center. Since then, waves of threats have zeroed in on several buildings on the campus, including the Cathedral of Learning, a towering structure that houses administrative offices, classrooms, libraries, and a restaurant. On Monday, 12 threats were received, raising the total to 57 and forcing the evacuations of four dormitories and several other campus buildings.

Law-enforcement officials have evacuated and searched buildings after the threats but have found no bombs.

In the weeks since the threats began, many classes have been canceled because of the evacuations, which have emptied buildings for up to three hours.

Since Monday, the university has been limiting access to buildings once they have been swept and cleared. Fewer entrances are open, and students, faculty, and staff need to present official ID's and pass through checkpoints to enter, resulting in long lines of people waiting to get inside.

Chris Jenkins, a senior studying English and film studies, has missed about eight classes so far. "It's rough to get a real rhythm and finish my last semester when every day there's a class canceled," he says. But Mr. Jenkins has stayed on course by doing make-up work and continuing to study at the library. "The talk about the threats is so pervasive, I try to not think about it by concentrating on work," he says.

The university has designated April 14 and 21 as make-up days for canceled courses, says Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs at the university. But the institution has "left it up to individual professors to come up with ways to make sure academic obligations are fulfilled," he says.

Lectures in the Park

Many faculty members who were forced to cancel classes have set up plans to meet at alternative places, such as a Starbucks, a Panera Bread, and even a Holiday Inn. Katie Moriarty, a Ph.D. candidate who teaches two French literature classes, held lectures at a nearby park during evacuations.

"It's challenged our teaching and is unfortunate," Ms. Moriarty says of the disruption, "but we're just trying to keep calm and persevere."

In light of evacuations, Tony Novosel, an adviser and a lecturer in the history department, moved his office to Starbucks and met with students there. He also worked from home and conducted advising appointments via Skype.

Some professors have switched completely to an online model for the rest of the semester, posting their lectures on YouTube or using online-learning software.

"We adapt," Mr. Novosel says. And because of those adaptations, "there's less worry about the bombs," he says. "It's more about what do we need to do to make things as normal as possible, and that's reflected with faculty and students."

Mr. Novosel also teaches a course on the conflict in Northern Ireland. In lieu of meeting this week at Victoria Hall, an academic building that has been the target of several bomb threats, Mr. Novosel uploaded his lecture online. In addition, he moved the course's final class presentation to a meeting room off the campus. "It's a great way to get them away from the atmosphere they have been around, and we can just have a discussion and not worry about anything," he says.

Students who live off-campus are also trying their best to make it smoother for those more affected by the threats. A Facebook group called "Adopt a Freshman" has been created, allowing students to post alternative boarding options for first-year students living in dorms. The group describes itself as being "for those who just want a place to stay that isn't going to have a threat put on it." As of Wednesday, it listed 141 "adopters."

But students are showing up for classes, too, enduring 20-minute bag-check lines at the entrances of some buildings.

"Most of us understand why we have to do it, and it's for our own good at the end," says Mr. Jenkins, who was 10 minutes late to his last class because of a check-in. "We're doing whatever is necessary to continue normally and finish this semester."