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Woodruff opens up about MSU shooting, response

February 24, 2023
MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff in her office during an exclusive interview with The State News on Feb. 23, 2023.
MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff in her office during an exclusive interview with The State News on Feb. 23, 2023. —
Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

Michigan State University interim president Teresa Woodruff was on a family vacation in Chicago on Monday, Feb. 13. A little after 8 p.m., she received a text from MSU’s Chief of Police alerting her to the mass shooting on the university's campus.

She immediately got in the car, and by 1:30 a.m. arrived at the Henry Center for Executive Development, a conference center just outside of MSU’s campus. She first addressed the media and then spent the rest of the night with about 100 other administrators and law enforcement officials in MSU’s Emergency Operations Center.

“It was very calm, although it was also very intense,” Woodruff said. “Because over those first several days, you had to have the ability to make decisions, even within the fluidity of that moment.”

Woodruff has helmed MSU for less than four months. She serves as an interim between former President Samuel L Stanley Jr., who was ousted by MSU’s board in fall of 2022, and whoever the yet-to-be-formed presidential search committee selects to permanently take the post in the coming months. 

In an interview with The State News, Woodruff opened up about her thoughts on campus security and statewide legislative changes students are advocating for, thoughts on MSU’s return to in-person activities, as well as her personal processing of the shooting.

Hope for change

As shots were fired at the MSU Union, members of MSU’s University Activities Board, or UAB, met in the basement. They only knew to barricade the room because they heard footsteps trampling on the floor above. Since then, UAB coordinator Andrew Miller Thomas has been advocating for PA systems in all university buildings to more quickly spread word of potential emergencies.

More broadly, some students have demanded additional security on MSU’s campus, including increased police presence, door locks for all classrooms and requiring MSU ID cards to enter academic buildings.

Woodruff said increased security will be “very important” to the university in coming weeks. She’s ordered a “full security analysis” of MSU’s campus, led by MSUPD Chief Marlon Lynch, which will “engage the community” on ways the campus could feel more secure. 

 Woodruff also said that she has advocated for increased security-related funding for MSU in recent conversations with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state and federal legislators. This move is precedented: In 2022, the Michigan legislature unanimously voted to spent $37.5 million to assist Oxford High School's recovery from the mass shooting on its campus and to fund programs hoping to further secure schools from similar events going forward.

Some students and student-organizations have opposed increased security.

Sunrise Spartans, an environmental political advocacy group, released a statement criticizing potential “increased police presence and ‘security’ measures,” writing, “we will never accept that tragedy is inevitable.”

Instead, thousands of students have involved themselves in activism, advocating for a package of bills spurred by the shooting which are currently moving through the Michigan Legislature.

The package includes universal background checks for gun purchases, safe storage requirements for gun owners, and “red flag” laws allowing judges to temporarily confiscate a gun from someone posing a risk to others or themselves. Advocates for the bills argue the shooting at MSU could have prevented, as the shooter was able to legally purchase guns despite a history of gun charges and mental health issues.

Woodruff said she was “proud” of students who attended protests at the Michigan capital, but increased security on campus and broader legislative solutions aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I think it’s an ‘and’ thing,” Woodruff said. 

She clarified the university itself doesn’t have an official stance on that legislation, but that she “thinks many students, many faculty, and many administrators have made their voices known personally.” 

When asked if she personally has strong feelings on the matter, Woodruff said “I do,” but declined to say what those feelings are. 

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The return to campus

After similar mass shootings, the University of Virginia closed for two days, Umpqua College in Oregon for 10, Santa Monica College for four, Northern Illinois University for nine — there was no clear precedent on when to return to classes and activities.

In deciding how and when students would return, Woodruff said she heard from senior administrators, faculty representatives, student government liaisons, psychologists and psychiatrists, and “most importantly,” many presidents of other universities. 

She says the experts emphasized the need for structure and educational continuity, leading to the decision to return one week after the shooting.

The execution of that return relied heavily on faculty. Without one perfect administrative solution for the needs of almost 50,000 students, the university is using its instructors to individualize accommodations. An email from the provost’s office to staff asked them to “take care to adjust syllabus expectations to accommodate the needs of students."

Woodruff said faculty should seek help if they feel overwhelmed balancing their own processing of the shooting with academic responsibilities and accommodations for students. 

“Talk with their chairs, talk with their deans, talk with the provost’s office, or the Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Development, which is a resource for all of our faculty and academic staff," Woodruff said. “They have resources available to help our faculty.” 

Woodruff pointed to a webinar titled “Rebuilding Hope, Teaching in the Aftermath,” which was distributed by the provost’s office to instructors Friday. The program is a digitally-presented slideshow hosted by Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an “expert on teaching after a crisis” and former member of MSU’s faculty.

Her experience

Woodruff didn’t expect to lead the response to an event of mass violence during her time in academia, but said she felt prepared for it.

She pointed to a false-threat which triggered an hours-long lockdown during her time as the dean of the graduate school at Northwestern University. She also commended former-president Stanley who created the Emergency Operations Center and hired Chief Lynch to centralize MSU’s security. 

 “We've thought about it,” Woodruff said. “I think the evidence of that is just how quickly that emergency operation response came together.”

But Woodruff said more than the foresight of administrators, today's students have grown up hearing of countless school shootings and were likely anxious about such events happening on MSU’s campus.

 “I wish I could take this away from you,” Woodruff said. “I've said this through COVID and I've said it for this thing: your buckets are full … and all we can do is put our hand with yours and carry it with you.”

Woodruff said she remembers similar fears during her childhood, saying she and her peers feared and prepared for potential “nuclear holocaust.”

 “I remember in third grade, just being afraid that someone was going to send something into my classroom that would obliterate all of us,” Woodruff said. “So, every generation has had to deal with modernity in ways that are unfair.”

Overall, Woodruff said she has trust in the MSU community to make positive change.

 “The world has moved in many perilous ways since 1855 when Michigan State first opened its doors," Woodruff said. "But I have great faith in the educational system, that it’s what changes the world. That when we engage in learning, then we can change the world. I often say that it's the best profession because I know tomorrow, I'll be smarter than I am today, because I will learn.”

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