Where science and tech meet creativity.

Every university seeks to convince parents (and itself) that it is a safe place where learning and personal development are fostered in a protective yet stimulating environment. This is part of the myth of the Ivory Tower: we form the intellectual fortress where the knowledge-wealth of a society is stored, and intellectual returns roll in at double-digit rates as papers are published and student sponges absorb the words of the marble and bronze professors we’ve placed on pedestals.

In truth, universities are just places that strive to be more, but often struggle to make their dreams reality. As places run by humans and often open to the public, they aren’t as secure as we may desire. While the majority of crimes are related to random strangers entering campus to thieve, and peep, and sometime grope and rape, the most tragic crimes we see are the ones perpetrated by the students and staff who become broken as they try to run the academic gauntlet.

At the University of Texas as a graduate student, I learned in the shadow of the UT tower. In August of 1966, Charles Whitman (a former UT student) went on a shooting spree from the top of that 307-foot tower and over the course of 96 minutes shot and killed 14 people while injuring dozens more. Earlier in the day, he had killed both his mother and his estranged wife. The day ended with a a police officer killing Whitman. By all accounts, he snapped after experiencing one too many personal failures, including academic failures.

At the University of Texas as a observational astronomer, I took data through the McDonald Observatory 107-inch telescope. In February 1970, a night assistant had a mental breakdown, fired a shot at his supervisor and then shot up the mirror of the telescope. The day ended with a local law enforcement officer talking him down and taking him away in hand cuffs. The stories I’ve heard from people who were there attribute his breakdown to frustrations in part or in whole related to research problems.

These events aren’t unique. In grad school, we all hear the stories of abused graduate students breaking and killing themselves or their advisors. I suspect we all hope never to experience this happening at our home institutions, but at the same time we all have or know someone who has thought “what if I…”

In 1998, the year I defended my master’s thesis, Harvard graduate student Jason D. Altom, one of the best of his field, killed himself. In a note published in the Harvard Crimson after release by Altom’s parents, Altom wrote, “This event could have been avoided. Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students,” the letter continued. Having a committee of professors involved earlier in the evaluation of a student’s work would “provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisers,” Mr. Altom wrote. “If I had such a committee now I know things would be different.” (Taken from linked Chronicle article.)

If our best can’t thrive in our Darwinian “survival of the fittest” academic community, … .

Yesterday, a new and tragic crime joined the list of events we can not afford to forget.

In April of 2007, the spring of my first year possessing a title containing the coveted word “professor”, Virginia Tech senior Cho Sheung-Hui killed 7 faculty and 23 students before turning a gun on himself. In a note, he railed against “rich kids,” “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans” on campus. (Taken from linked News Day article.)

I’m not a psychologist, a sociologist, or someone who can pretend the slightest training in the mental workings of the human mind. But, I am a human who has survived the US educational system. When I hear of these shootings, I don’t ask why, I thank God it doesn’t happen more often. The upper tiers of academia, to which Harvard and Texas and Virginia Tech all belong, appeal to a certain type of person. They welcome the student who chooses to study astrophysics because they are told it’s the hardest major. They nurture the student who believes anything less then perfection is failure. They push and push and push, trying to get each student to jump over a bar so high most of us can never reach it. They push, because occasionally someone can jump over the bar, and that person, when pushed to become the best they can be, just might save the world. And hey, there is a curve (often unspoken) to make sure everyone else still gets a mostly passing grade.

But just passing can be an emotional failure. The pressures put on students pulverize self-worth and crush the understanding that mistakes are okay.

I was one of those freaked out students who feared every B would keep me from college. I was so freaked that I vapor locked on exams. The only semester I actually got straight As was my last semester of my senior year (when it really no longer mattered). As early as 8th grade, I was being pressured that my occasional Bs would keep me out of the MIT I dreamed of attending (in reality, I suspect the D I got in German and my less then perfect math SATs had more to do with it). Today, I hear parents freaking out that if their child doesn’t attend the correct private pre-school, they won’t get into the elementary school that will get them into the right high school that will get them into the right college.

Parents are hiring college admissions advisors to shape their children into what colleges want. In one of the sadder examples, would-be Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan was assisted by her admissions councilor in getting a book deal that would have her writing her first novel while she tried to finish high school and complete her first year of college. She was accepted at Harvard, but her first book was retracted after it was discovered that she had somehow plagiarized large amounts of text from her favorite authors. I don’t know how anyone thought this brilliant young woman could balance so many things. Phil Plait, a brilliant astronomer needed to quit his job to write his second book, and he is an experienced writer. Viswanathan was an 18 year old who should have been busy having fun learning to be an independent co-ed.

We are all guilty of occasionally perpetuating higher than necessary standards. In mentoring students, I hear myself advising them to seek research opportunities as high school students and to try and publish research as undergrads. That is what I did, and it worked for me. But… aren’t normal high school students supposed to be flipping burgers and don’t normal undergrads just focus on finding a good summer co-op, but otherwise worry more about what they are doing Friday night?

Oh yeah – being normal is the same as failing. At least that is the impression any student trying to replicate my career path might be tempted to believe. It is even what I believed. At Harvard, I decided I must be too dumb to be a professor. After all, many of the profs I dealt with got their PhD in their early 20s and had tenure by 30. Here I am at 33 and still not on the tenure-track. To some, that is failure. In truth, we all chase our dreams at our own rates and if I think about it, I haven’t failed.

And I need to remember, as I place myself in the awful position of potentially getting mistaken as a role model, that I shouldn’t put pressure on the same students who are already putting pressure on themselves. We in academe need to tell our students stories of the successful people in our lives who never saw college as a need. We can’t forget to praise our students for trying. We need to tell them to enjoy life. We can’t simply push them as we were pushed. Academe can be a cycle not too different from any other cycle of abuse – but each of us has the ability to break the cycle. We’ll make mistakes – on our thoughtless days, we’ll write “See me” on failed exams without writing praise on perfect papers (isn’t perfection simply meeting expectations? No – it’s not.) We’ll forget to say, hey, you may not make it the first try, and that’s okay – it was hard for us too, and we struggled too. But hopefully we’ll learn to nurture as we teach.

And we’ll remember our youth and what it was like to have a dream and fear every day that one bad homework, one mistake on an exam, could crush that dream forever. Dreams should be treaded on lightly, and we need to care for those who are hurting as they struggle toward a dream.

I will never forget the stories of the students academe has broken and the world has lost. I will always be here for the student in need. To you, my door is always open.