Friday, June 04, 2010

Missing Students: What to Do?

June 4, 2010, 8:20 a.m.

[For BP disaster see, "Big Oil: Calling Shots, Corrupting Government," May 26, 2010; "Obama As Finger-Pointer-In-Chief," May 18, 2010; "Big Oil + Big Corruption = Big Mess," May 10, 2010; "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit," May 3, 2010.]

Preparing for the Unexpected
(bought to you by*)

As BP says, "accidents happen."

And as UI administrators say, sometimes "off-campus students go missing."

The question is not whether all untoward events can be prevented. They cannot. The question (for each of us individually as well as large institutions) is whether all of the most serious untoward events have been anticipated, studied, thought about, and planned for -- both in terms of taking the maximum reasonable precautions to avoid them in the first place, and having plans in place to deal with them when they occur anyway, as they inevitably will.

That goes for the White House anticipating the probability, and consequences, of corruption and "agency capture" by otherwise-regulated corporations -- from unsafe coal mines to Gulf oil disasters. It's certainly applicable to oil companies that start drilling at 5000-to-10000 feet beneath the ocean's surface, and then continue for as much as 20,000 or more feet beyond that into the ocean floor.

And it applies to universities.

Every university administrator knows, or ought to know, that it is not a question of "whether," but only "when," certain publicized disasters will occur.

In one of the world's most heavily armed countries, a university with 30,000 students and 15,000 staff is probably going to have to deal with one of them being shot on campus. (And one of the questions is whether arming campus police is more likely to increase, or decrease, the likelihood of that happening.)

There will be tornadoes, floods, chemical spills, and widespread outbreaks of disease.

Students will be raped -- sometimes by high-profile athletes.

Students will die from alcohol abuse, whether falling from buildings, drunk driving accidents, strangling on their own vomit, fights, freezing in a snow drift, or alcohol poisoning.

Students will commit suicide.

And there will be occasions when "off-campus students go missing." (See Malewitz story, below, at p. A7.)

So it was at the University of Iowa on September 28, 2009.

The Gazette told the story last Saturday: Jim Malewitz, "Study in Contrasts; 2 Students Go Missing and the Responses are Incredibly Different," IowaWatch/The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1.

(As a Media Watch sidebar, this story -- and indeed the entire front page of that issue of The Gazette -- are significant for reasons beyond the substance of the stories. Iowa Watch, the source of the missing student story, is a project of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, devoted to collaborative efforts with Iowa papers on explanatory and investigative work. See Gazette Editor Lyle Muller, "Non-profit center, IowaWatch, launches with report on fall missing person tragedy," GazetteOnline, May 29, 2010. The other two above-the-fold stories, although written by Gazette reporters, were also feature stories -- magazine-like-articles reporting significant events not generated by dramatic news pegs, news conferences or police blotters. Rick Smith, "Shifting Lines; E. Iowa Farm Fences Disappear, as do Livestock Operations," The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1; Cindy Hadish, "Chickens Already Roosting in Palo," The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A1. Both Iowa Watch, and the use of feature stories on page one, bode well for the future of a struggling newspaper industry trying to find its way during a digital revolution. To which Jim Malewitz added another piece, including comments from The Gazette's Senior Content Editor, Mary Sharp, regarding the limitations on the mainstream media's response to missing students. Jim Malewitz, "Media Response Depends on Information, Resources," IowaWatch/The Gazette, May 29, 2010, p. A7.)

Most generously put, the UI's response to a frantic parent's effort to find his son was "low key." But the story not only describes what the University did and did not do. It also contrasts what the UI did with what was done when an Iowa State student went missing and his body was found on April 14, three months after he went missing. (Although the names of the students, and university officials, are contained in the stories, it's not my purpose to focus on the individuals involved and therefore I will not identify them.)

As Malewitz reports:

"[The two boys] were each in their 20s. Both were described by friends and family as kind, funny, somtimes sociabile, sometimes quiet. One was the son of a Grinnell lawyer and art instructor, the other the son of a refugee preacher from Haiti.

And 116 days and 108 miles apart, both vanished.

While one community and its university were galvanized by news of the disappearance, the other received no news. While hundreds search for one missing son, a father was left, at times alone, to find the other. The lackluster response in the [University of Iowa] case raises questions about the policies and practices of the University of Iowa and about the slow and minimal response by Cedar Rapids police and news organizations.
Malewitz, supra, at p. A7.

The possibility that the disparity in response could be partially explained by the socio-economic disparity of the parents ("Grinnell lawyer" vs. "refugee preacher from Haiti") is disturbing to say the least, although there is nothing additional in the story to suggest that was the case.

If you're interested in more of the details about the parties, the events, the dead students, the comments and actions of university officials, read Malewitz' story. I won't repeat it all here.

My point, my reason for mentioning the case at all, is occasioned by the memories it brings back of the University's somewhat disorganized response during the aftermath of the alleged rape of a student athlete by football players on October 14, 2007. See Nicholas Johnson, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08," August 9, 2008, et seq.

Viewed from outside the events, both would seem to be BP-like failures to anticipate and plan for the inevitable. There is no way to anticipate who, when and where a college student will go missing. But there are many ways, and reasons, to prepare a playbook in advance for what the University's response will be when s/he does -- as Iowa State, and other universities, apparently have done.

Ultimately the playbooks for students' rapes, deaths from alcohol, suicides, murders, and "going missing" are going to have to be prepared. It won't take any more time, staff and money to prepare them before the events occur rather than after. But being proactive in this way can make an enormous difference in terms of human sorrow, a university's responsibility to its students (and their parents) -- not to mention the university's reputation and public relations.

I'm not in a position to write that playbook, or say that its contents are obvious. These are emotionally charged events. Other institutions' approachs can be helpful, but are not decisive. All I am saying is that giving the matter some thought ahead of time, whatever the emerging game plan may be, can at a minimum avoid the appearance -- whether for BP or the University of Iowa -- that those in charge are flailing about, uncoordinated, either ignoring the problem or trying everything they can pull out of the air as the IEDs (inevitable embarrassing developments) explode in front of them.

What seems most unfortunate -- substantively, morally, and in terms of public relations -- is for the University's response to be, as one official put it, that when students go missing off-campus, "It's not my case."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

A very low key presentation of a serious issue. This is one more example of a disengaged, aloof, out of touch administration at the University of Iowa.

It is pretty clear now that the current administrators will bumble along enriching themselves while collecting pension dollars.

Should these rather incompetent (and nonempathic) be called out? Of course, however a stripped down press is not likely to be up to this task (as they cannot even investigate the major environmental disaster down in the Gulf).

This is pathetic.

John Neff said...

An interesting comparison is between the level of effort expended in searching Hickory Hill Park for Professor Miller and the search of the Cedar River for Mr. Simihomme.

By the way I knew (my recollection is there was a brief note in the CRG) that Mr. Simihomme had been reported missing and that a car containing his belongings had been found near the Cedar River. I assumed that the Linn County Search and Rescue team had been asked to carry out a search. When it was reported his body had been found I also assumed that it had been found by Linn County Search and Rescue. Obviously that was not the case.