Pitt Community Bonds Are Strengthened As Many Join Hands in Challenging Times

Issue Date: 
April 16, 2012

Numerous people within the University of Pittsburgh community—students, faculty, alumni, staff, administrators, and friends—are looking inward and reaching out to one another during a time of uncertainty on the Oakland campus as a rash of bomb threats against campus buildings has occurred since Feb. 13.

• Professors have opened their homes to hold classes.

• Pitt police are being showered with praise by students, staff, and faculty for their vigilance.

• Students are actively watching out for one another during evacuations.

• The chancellor and other senior administrators are visiting with students at middle-of-the-night residence hall evacuation sites.

• More than 200 local alumni, upperclassmen, and concerned citizens have offered spare couches to those wanting off-campus accommodations.

This coming together has reinforced for many Pitt people the intrinsic value of their University and the importance of maintaining the Pitt community’s strengths, especially during times of uncertainty. What follows is a look at just a few segments of the Pitt community and their efforts to help maintain normalcy, safety, and an ability to learn during difficult, challenging times.

Student Government Board

Pitt’s Student Government Board (SGB) has initiated two campuswide campaigns: “Keep Calm and Hail to Pitt” and “See Something, Say Something,” designed to help empower students to report suspicious activity to the police, according to Kenyon Bonner, Pitt associate dean and director of student life as well as an SGB advisor. SGB members continue to spread the mottos on Facebook and Twitter accounts—and, soon, on T-shirts.

On April 9, SGB hosted a “Pitt Pride Day” event on the veranda of the William Pitt Union. Students wearing blue and gold were treated to free pizza and popcorn. More than 600 students emptied 45 boxes of pizza and signed a thank-you poster for the Pitt police.

“It helped students get their minds off everything,” said Pitt junior Richard White, a political science major who chairs SGB’s Transportation and Safety Committee. “It was an opportunity to have a good time and be proud of this university.”

The thank-you poster will be presented to the University of Pittsburgh Police Department this week, along with a resolution of gratitude drafted by White’s committee and a collection of doggie treats for the bomb-sniffing police dogs.

Visible Support for Pitt Police

Pitt students Alexander Rhodes and Sarah Halperin created a “We Support the Pitt Police” Facebook page in early April (www.facebook.com/We.Support.the.Pitt.Police). By the end of its first week, the page had collected more than 4,200 likes and garnered hundreds of wall posts, becoming an unofficial forum for Pitt community members to voice their praise for the Pitt Police.

“When you look at the response to the Western Psych shooting and the vigilance displayed during these [bomb threat] incidents, these men and women absolutely deserve to be recognized for their dedication and hard work in protecting us,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes and Halperin, with the assistance of Student Affairs, also designed and hung a 10-by-4-foot banner that reads, “Thank You Pitt Police!” at the entrance of the William Pitt Union.

For Rhodes, who has been evacuated from a University building during one of the bomb threats, the trying times of this semester have shown the resilience of Pitt’s students and the expertise of those assigned to protect them.

“Speaking firsthand, it’s a very nerve-racking experience, but I believe the situation has been handled well,” he said. “I think the overall sentiment is that everyone is really thankful for [the police] and all the steps they’ve taken to keep us safe here.”

Faculty: Regrouping on the Fly

Even under the best of circumstances, the end of Spring Term elevates stress levels, with term papers due, final exams approaching, and course grades on the line. But the recent onslaught of bomb threats and building evacuations have complicated the academic process immeasurably. Nevertheless, faculty and students have together sought solutions to get the job done.

In early April, Provost Beeson offered guidance to faculty regarding options for finishing the semester, and she encouraged accommodation and flexibility. Some faculty members have held classes outside, under the trees on the Cathedral lawn or beneath the canopy at Schenley Plaza. Others have quickly organized virtual class sessions, allowing students to obtain lectures and submit coursework online. And some have opened their front doors, moving classes into their own homes.

An English professor recently convened class in her dining room, with chairs set in rows around the family table. Her children offered pita chips, hummus, candy, and lemonade in the midst of discussions about Shakespeare. “The students have been wonderful,” she says. “There’s a spirit of community and cooperation, despite the circumstances.”

Another faculty member is using a course blog, Twitter, and other digital communication tools to keep students engaged and working cooperatively outside the classroom. And a music professor is using the Internet video/audio service Skype to engage directly with piano-class students who have keyboards in their homes. More traditional options, such as take-home assignments and exams, are also in the mix. There are also spontaneous acts of “TLC” for the students: Last week, Gerald D. Holder, the Swanson School’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering, with help from staff and faculty, offered a table of refreshments for students in the Benedum Hall lobby.

Jason Dechant teaches an anatomy and physiology class in the School of Nursing. The class consists of more than 200 students—mostly freshmen—from disciplines such as nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, pharmacy, and even engineering. In the wake of recent events, he has ramped up his use of online teaching. He’s still holding his classes regularly, but he’s also offering a video feed of the class in real time, using a conferencing and collaboration platform. Students can access his class remotely and are able to view the class in session, to see Dechant’s desktop screen as he teaches, and to ask questions and receive feedback as the class proceeds.

“I’ve been at Pitt for 21 years and teaching for 15, and this situation is unprecedented,” says Dechant. “Taking into consideration what all of these students have been through recently, whatever is better for them is worth doing.”

Lab work, too, has been disrupted. Typically, students attend weekly lab sessions, where they work through a variety of activities, including the use of specimens and performing experiments in class, but the recent evacuations have interfered with scheduling and have raised uncertainty. So Dechant has set up a virtual lab environment utilizing a software platform included with his textbook to convey anatomy and physiology concepts. For a lab session on digestive enzymes, for instance, the online program enables students to measure and separate enzymes virtually and to complete self-tests about the lab content, with feedback assessments from Dechant. While the situation isn’t ideal, he says: “The students are accessing the materials, they’re still engaged, theyre still able to understand the content.”

Dechant and other professors are also using a traditional online system called Course Web, which has been used at Pitt for nearly a decade. This platform enables faculty to post the text of lectures and lab notes, to add audio content to posted materials, to conduct online assessments of students’ knowledge, and even to serve as a site for online office hours so that students can have real-time “chat room” interactions with professors, asking questions, getting feedback, or simply discussing concepts or assignments.

“The response from my students has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Dechant. “They want to complete the work and finish the semester.”

Student Affairs and Staff

The Division of Student Affairs, under the leadership of Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey, has been busy tending students during middle-of-the-night evacuations—and parents 24/7.

About a dozen emergency-relocation response teams comprising Student Affairs staff have been formed, one of which is on always call from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. to directly assist students required to evacuate Pitt facilities. Armed with cots, blankets, beverages, and a heartfelt concern for the students’ well- being, response team members—including the “first responder” residence hall directors—direct and accompany students and manage the evacuation sites designated by the Pitt Police. From creating quiet zones where students can study, rest, or sleep, to distributing water bottles and pretzel packets, to conducting crisis intervention counseling and almost everything in between—the response teams help students cope with an unprecedented situation. It is not uncommon for any of those nighttime teams to be accompanied by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson, or other senior University administrators, among them Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson and Head Football Coach Paul Chryst, all of whom are putting in evening and overnight shifts in a bid to lend a sense of stability to uncertain times.

Shawn Brooks, associate dean and director of residence life, said he’s seen “shining examples of people pulling together” during the unprecedented series of threats.

Student Affairs employees also staff Pitt’s call center, which was activated once residence halls became the target of security threats. The call center has received numerous calls, the majority from parents. In addition to listening compassionately and answering questions, the volunteers refer parents to Pitt’s Campus Safety Update Web page, www.pitt.edu/campus-safety.html. The page features, including other information, three letters to parents and one to students that Humphrey has written since the bomb threats intensified.

Together, as usual, Pitt people are getting it done.

(Sharon S. Blake, Diane Hernon Chavis, Cynthia Gill, Cara Masset, Anthony M. Moore, and Jane-Ellen Robinet contributed to this story.)