Content warning: This article contains details about the UNC Charlotte shooting and mentions several other school shootings.
On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA opened fire on his fellow students, leaving 32 dead and injuring more than 12 others.
The mass shooting marked a paradigm shift in higher education. American universities were suddenly forced to make room in their budgets, payroll and campuses for a dark reality: They could be next. Shootings have become so common that they are generally treated like natural disasters: a tragedy for which we can prepare, but not prevent.
And prepare we did. After the shooting at Virginia Tech, schools hunkered down and security cameras went up. UNC Charlotte’s Chancellor Philip Dubois was appointed to one of the many task forces that began to populate the education sector. His career in higher education would be forever altered.
Twelve years later, Dubois’ training and worries were realized when his own campus experienced a shooting. On April 30, 2019, a former UNC Charlotte student opened fire on an anthropology class, killing two students and injuring four others.
In an interview with the Niner Times, Chancellor Dubois reflected on the tragedy and how it has shaped his last year at UNC Charlotte.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. You mentioned at your State of the University address that UNC Charlotte has paid $350,000 to an independent group to evaluate university protocol before, during and after the shooting. Can you describe to me what they found?
A. The group conducting the review comes from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). They have a team of folks who evaluate what you’ve done on campus in terms of preparing for such an event, how you responded to the event, and recommendations for future changes. They haven't reported yet because COVID-19 interfered with the process. They will be getting the report to me on June 15. Then I'll have two weeks, and I plan on consulting with the future chancellor about this to identify the major initiatives and changes that we need to make.
From what I've heard so far, for example, they think that we were as good as they get in higher education in terms of frequency and appropriate tone of our communication. We had a communications consultant come in well over a year prior to April 30 to assess our crisis communications capabilities. So I felt good about that. On the needs improvement side, they mentioned to me that the way in which we came out of lockdown could have been done more efficiently. We also had a good bit of damage to some facilities because if you're in lockdown and a [security officer] knocks on your door, you're not supposed to open the door, and that results in a lot of doors being broken.
So we'll get the report. I want to make sure I can set some direction before I leave and then it’ll be up to the next chancellor to implement it.
Q. What was the scope of the independent investigation?
A. It was designed to look at all the elements of the response, including the people who came to campus to help us -- hundreds of Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Officers, medics, sheriffs, all kinds of people. They’ll be looking at whether or not all that support was effectively brought to bear.
I already know what they're going to say about the immediate response. They're going to say no one gets into a building that quickly after a 9-1-1 call for an active shooter. That was just heroic on the part of Sgt. Gundacker, Lt. Smyre and Chief Baker.
Q. I know you said that we don't have the results of the review yet, but there have been some changes implemented since last year. Could you tell me a bit about those?
A. I would go to the Emergency Management website and click on “recovery” to see a list. These initiatives evolved over time. After Virginia Tech happened, I was actually the chancellor in the UNC system that was appointed to the task force appointed by then Attorney General Roy Cooper. One of the questions that was raised was whether or not you should have an ability to lockdown classrooms because that was an issue at Virginia Tech. We came back on campus and had a conversation about it and concluded we were better off being able to lock down whole buildings rather than individual rooms. So we made the decision to do the campus lockdown with one button, about a $6 million investment. It was done over several years. You saw it come into play on April 30 because when we pushed the button every building got locked down, including Kennedy. Even Chief Baker had to be let in. When John Bogdan joined us with his law enforcement experience he said, 'What you did was a great decision, but we think you need more in the future.' So we developed the kits to be able to lock down any classroom. We’ll probably look at the question of whether or not we want to put deadbolts in some of our classrooms. We're also having a conversation now about whether or not we need more external cameras on campus in public areas.
Q. Did we receive funding from the UNC System or the State to cover all of these security enhancements?
A. No, we did not. Everything we've done, we've done on our own nickel. I keep a healthy reserve of funding for new initiatives every year. Normally it would go to things like academic or sport equipment or technology or whatever. This year we had to spend the money on many of these security initiatives.
Q. The words “run, hide, fight” sent out in that evening’s Niner Notice have become indelible in most of our minds. It seemed like the intent was to scare us so that we understood the gravity of the situation. Was that your thought process?
A. No. Actually, that had been part of our standard protocol for dealing with an active shooter. It was among the things we had practiced. Since I've been chancellor, we have done numerous drills of different kinds of campus emergencies, including active shooter, but also things like an explosion in a chemistry lab.
Q. Is there anything you wish UNC Charlotte had done differently since then?
A. Obviously I felt extremely emotional about the fact that we lost our two students and we had four others injured and we scared the willikers out of everyone else. I mean I wish all of that didn't happen. You know, I've been asked a lot of times about whether we knew anything about this particular student that would have tipped us off to his emotional state. The answer is no. I have talked with his father at some length and even his father didn't have that understanding of him.
We have the Niner Care website where people can report students. We have the Campus Behavioral Intervention Team (CBID). They will get a report from a faculty member about a troubled student who is perhaps threatening and try to assess whether that student is a real danger. Since I've been chancellor, we’ve discussed a policy about involuntary suspension of students who we think are a danger to the campus or to themselves and I think we have only exercised that one time.
In the case of this specific student, he was not on our radar at all. So I don't think, absent some kind of provocative act on his part which would have tipped us off to him, that we would have been able to prevent it. He did leave school and was seen on campus multiple times between the time he left school and April 30. But the reality is we have many hundreds of students who withdraw from school every semester, and withdrawing from school is not a sign that you're going to go create a criminal act like this.
Q. Do you think the University would consider tracking students to identify abnormal or potentially dangerous behavior?
A. No, I don't. That’s like profiling, right? You just can't do that in an open society and we would have no basis to make those kinds of judgements anyway.
Q. You mentioned Virginia Tech earlier, one of many schools who have experienced a tragedy like ours. Have you noticed any commonality between these schools that might indicate why it happened here?
A. I think there has been some analysis by the Federal Government where they've gone back over school shootings at both high schools and colleges and tried to discern some common elements, but unfortunately they're not particularly predictable. I don't think there's a clear answer as to why these things are happening or why they have become more common in the years past. The typical shooter does have a profile: They tend to be young men without supportive networks. Beyond that it’s pretty hard to know.
Q. From what it sounds like you've been involved in preparing for situations like these for many years. Have you learned anything that you think could help other chancellors?
A. Well, I think in the general field of crisis management, there probably hasn’t been a chancellor or president in the country that has had more crises than I have. Going back to 1998, the gay student, Matthew Shepard, was killed in a hate crime. I had eight student athletes killed in a car crash when I was president of the University of Wyoming. I had several other students die in freak accidents and a couple of suicides. Since coming to Charlotte, of course I have had April 30 and now COVID-19. I think the one thing I have learned about anything involving violent death is that your number one priority as the leader of the institution is to be focused on the families and the victims.
Using April 30 as a very specific example, there were people who wanted me to make statements about gun violence and the availability of guns. I was not going to be drawn into that kind of conversation. I have my own personal views about those things, but we are a tax-supported institution and the people who pay for the University have a variety of views about managing guns in society. My focus needed to be entirely on supporting the Parlier and Howell families and the four families of the injured students. And that's just the way I've always viewed it.
Q. You’re a political scientist by training. If you were to take a broad swing at the problem, to what do you attribute the influx of shootings in recent decades?
A. I don't think my professional training gives me any insight in this at all. I can tell you when I started in university administration 44 years ago at the University of California Davis, getting ready for mass violence was not in the job description for a university administrator. It just wasn't. I think Virginia Tech and Columbine changed the entire dynamic of how we view safety and security in large institutions.
Q. How does it make you feel that this has become something that universities have to spend so much energy on?
A. Well, energy and money. It's money that could have been spent on your education. But my first obligation is to keep you all safe. We're all dedicated to that. But yeah, it's a diversion and there's no question. We spent over $70 million in the last ten years on safety and security, and we’ll spend millions more.
Q. I'm sure you got into higher education because you're interested in just that and not necessarily, you know, defense. How does that make you feel that that has become part of your job?
A. I don't feel good about it. I have three children. I always worried about whether something would happen at their schools. I certainly identify very closely with the Howell and Parlier families. The thought of losing a son or a daughter to this kind of violence is just unimaginable.
Q. On the day that the shooter was sentenced to life in prison, you wrote to the community saying, “While this news does not bring closure to the tragedy that occurred that day, it does bring a definite end to the criminal proceedings.” What would closure look like to you, if it’s even attainable?
A. I don't think there will ever be closure for UNC Charlotte. I think it has to be acknowledged as part of our history. The victims have to be remembered, and there should be some kind of annual or periodic remembrance so that it is not forgotten. So I don't think there will be closure.