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A President's Reflections on a Tragedy: a Q&A With Charles W. Steger of Virginia Tech

April 26, 2007

Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, has spent more than a week responding to the April 16 shootings on his campus in which a student gunman killed 32 students and faculty members before taking his own life. No other college leader has had to confront a massacre of that scale.

In an interview with The Chronicle on Wednesday, Mr. Steger talked about the role of a president in a crisis of such magnitude, how he wants Virginia Tech and other institutions to learn from the external and internal reviews being conducted, and how he is trying to move the university forward.

A transcription of excerpts from the interview follows. (To hear a portion of the interview in which Mr. Steger describes how he first learned of the shootings, click here.)

Q. Is there anything you'd like to share about what it's been like to be president at Virginia Tech over the past nine days?

A. Well, I can tell you that I have been overwhelmed by the expressions of support literally from all over the world, as well as the resilience and strength of this community, both our students, faculty, staff, and the town itself. It is something that we've drawn a great deal of strength from, and while I knew it was there, I had no appreciation for the depth and capacity of the community to deal with a tragedy like this.

Q. After having spent this time responding to an event that really no other colleague of yours in higher education has had to endure, what kinds of advice might you have?

A. One of the main things we'll continue to do is keep nurturing and building that sense of community and shared purpose. ... As you know, we're a large, complicated enterprise, and there are hundreds of initiatives under way trying to manage this problem. And a lot of them are being done because people see a need, they step in, and they do it. And it's really been remarkable. The other thing I would say is that we are, of course, carrying out our own review of what has happened, and I think it's very important to shine the light on yourself and what is going on and learn everything you can about what transpired so that you can help others in the future.

Q. Tell me a little bit about how you view your role, the president's role, in responding to this kind of situation.

A. Well, my role really did not change. Obviously the intensity of activity did. But one of the things that you try to do as president is, of course, to articulate the priorities of the institution. And then, after these events occurred, our priorities were clearly, How do we step in to help these families? How do we work with our student body and take them, as well as our broader community, through a process of grieving? How do we get the campus going back to normal? And then what can we learn, as I said, that can help others?

Q. Do you sense that over the next several months, and even years, your role might continue to shift or intensify?

A. I don't know that I see it shifting, but I certainly want to provide mechanisms so we can share what we learn with others. We certainly don't want to see this happen to any other institution anywhere in America, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.

Q. What kind of mechanisms?

A. Governor [Tim] Kaine [of Virginia] has appointed a commission -- which, by the way, we asked the governor to do. I talked with him at length. He was wondering how he could be helpful, and I think it is something that is very appropriate, to have some objective evaluation of what transpired. We are also doing our own internal reviews, not only of the incident itself but of what sort of technologies are available to help us with these problems that we haven't been using in the past and, you know, are there some things that we can do in the future? Maybe there are even some strategies or technological infrastructure that doesn't exist today that we can help create.

Q. Have you decided yet on what form that internal review is going to take?

A. It is already under way. ... What we're trying to do now is gather the facts on what happened. As you can imagine, all this was happening within a matter of minutes, and lots of times memories fail. And, as you know, about 50 percent of the information that comes in from a battlefield incident is usually wrong. So we're trying to find out what really did happen, and we're, of course, making significant progress on that, and what lessons can be drawn. And we're going to share that with everybody, unless it affects some sort of legal proceeding.

Q. Your life and the campus's life shifted so quickly and suddenly. You must have started out the day quite normally. What did you do to start the day, and where were you when you learned of the first shootings?

A. Well, I get in, as most presidents do, pretty early. I was here about 7:15 or so in my office, and that's usually the period where I sign letters and go through the mail and whatever. And someone came down to my office -- I think it was about 8:10 or something like that, I forget the exact time -- and said we have a report of a shooting. I immediately requested that individual to get together our crisis-management group. And we moved from there as quickly as we could. ... The first call that came in did not come in on the 911, it came in on the police administrative line, and it said that a student had fallen out of her bed and hit her head. That's what we were told first. ...

Q. Did you actually hear the shootings [at Norris Hall, which is next door to the administrative building where Mr. Steger has his office]?

A. I did, yes, in fact. What is hard to get one's thoughts around is that we had this one incident, tragic as it was, and later that we learned that two people were killed and so all of our response was focused on, first of all, what actually happened, was there a security risk. ... And then all of a sudden coming across the radio was there's a shooting going on in Norris, we think there are fatalities, and we saw police running down the sidewalk -- I mean, out of the window of my board room -- with their guns drawn, and I did hear several shots.

Q. Tell me about the emotional toll that all this has taken on you.

A. Well, I must confess that the amount of sleep that I've been getting is not what's recommended by most doctors. And so I think we're all very focused on moving the institution forward, very focused on providing support for the families and the students, and we're all very tired.

Q. Do you have a security person 24 hours a day?

A. I did have them in the first few days because we didn't know. Lots of times these types of events trigger copycat behavior, so my house had security around it all the time. ... One of the things that has taken a lot of time: I just went to a funeral service today. I went to three of them, I believe, the day before. I lose track. ... And there's another memorial service tonight at 7, so [having a security detail] just facilitates my getting around. ... I think it's also reassuring to the public. I have lots of friends in this town, and they're concerned. So it makes me feel better, but it makes them feel better, too. I don't have a guard with me around the clock anymore.

Q. In terms of additional staffing and financial resources, what are you anticipating your needs are going to be?

A. We are hiring additional jobs in key areas: for example, our legal counsel. We are inundated with FOI [Freedom of Information] requests, and we're adding an additional attorney. ... Larry Hincker [the associate vice president for university relations] has got some people helping him, and we may expand that. ... I've hired, just today, an individual to serve as director of a liaison office between the university and the governor's study commission ... and on and on and on. ... Obviously, all these things have to be paid for. What we're doing is first building our capacity to manage the problem, and then I will address the problem of funding it a few weeks from now.

Q. Do you have any ballpark estimate of how much this might cost?

A. I really don't, but it's hundreds of thousands of dollars. ... I shouldn't estimate, but it's not an insignificant amount of money.

Q. Are there any ways that you do feel that you are going to have to reshape your presidency over the long term?

A. The basic strategic decisions that we have made for the university, we continue to believe they are the appropriate ones. What we have to do is to maintain the capacity to pursue what we've set out as the agenda for the institution while at the same time dealing with all the things that go along with this incident.

Q. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to bring up?

A. One thing that we will be doing, along with reviewing the incident, is we're going to be spending a lot of time planning and being sure that when the students come back [in the fall], we really get off to a great start. I'm sure there are some things that we normally don't do that we will do. I don't know what those are for the moment, but I want to be sure that when the kids come back that we provide all the support and comfort and excitement and fun. ... I've asked one of our vice presidents to lead a working group to give me memorial ideas by the end of May. We are going to certainly recognize the individuals. We want to do it in a way, though, that reflects on the future. One thing that we may do, and I'm not certain of this, we may endow a scholarship in the name of each of these students so that, in perpetuity, they can be remembered -- these are extraordinary kids, I wish I had gotten a chance to know them all -- that their memory lives on forever.