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MSU asked professors to be empathetic after campus shooting, but some strayed, emails show

June 21, 2023
Beaumont Tower on Michigan State University campus lit up green on Feb. 27, 2023 to honor the victims of the mass shooting on Feb. 13, 2023.
Beaumont Tower on Michigan State University campus lit up green on Feb. 27, 2023 to honor the victims of the mass shooting on Feb. 13, 2023.

In the immediate aftermath of a February shooting that left three students dead on Michigan State University’s campus, administrators gave professors a new directive: do what you think is right, and put your students' healing first.

“Please extend yourself and your students grace, empathy, and flexibility … We trust you to make professional decisions about your courses and how to best support our students as they return to class,” Interim Provost Thomas Jeitschko said in an email to faculty.

The university maintains that the vast majority of professors adhered to that guidance. And for those who didn't, they had a plan: students were to report professors acting without empathy to the provost, whose office would anonymously relay the concerns. 

Those reports, newly released to The State News through public records requests, detail the tumultuous time, with some professors choosing to completely disregard the provost’s instructions in favor of an “embrace of normalcy” through heavy workloads.

They describe some professors communicating unclearly or inappropriately in the days following the shooting, some professors being unresponsive altogether, or, most commonly, pushing large workloads into the week after the shooting to compensate for the time missed – something the administration directly advised against.

No professors faced formal discipline for communications or actions following the shooting, MSU deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen said.

The provost’s office did instruct college-level leadership – deans and department chairs – to intervene in reported missteps, sometimes simply reminding professors of the guidance, or in some cases directly instructing them on how to adjust their classes, Olsen said.

All the professors named in the reports were contacted by The State News. Those who responded defended their actions, saying they were attempting to give students a sense of normalcy in uncertain times. Many professors also said it was unrealistic to expect they both accommodate students’ healing and ensure a full understanding of the content students paid to learn about.

The names and identifying information of the students who filed the reports were redacted because of privacy protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and therefore could not be reached for comment on this story.

What's reported

Some of the reports capture the confusion of the hours and days immediately following the shooting. As guidance from the administration formed and changed throughout the week, professors sent out all manners of communication.

Some were reported for being insensitive or unempathetic. Others were reported for attempting to assign work due the day classes resumed or even sooner.

One professor reportedly sent and deleted multiple “tone-deaf” emails regarding upcoming exams throughout the hours-long lockdown itself on Feb. 13.

Another instructor, Assistant Professor and the Plant Breeder Cholani Weebadde, quickly opted to convert assignments due the days after the shooting into extra-credit opportunities for those who didn’t “need the time to heal,” according to her email to students.

“Sending this in because it just feels wrong, I don't want the professor to get in trouble, but there's a time and place for these things,” a student wrote in their report regarding Weebadde’s decision.

But most of the reports, 44 in all, concerned a rush to raise expectations and add assignments to the week after the shooting. As Professor Susan Stoltzfus put it in the subject line of her twice-reported email to students, “the end of a hard week, the start of hard work."

Some professors pushed course material from the week of the shooting to the next, doubling assignments for students. Others pushed the due dates of assignments to midnight on Sunday, Feb. 19 to technically comply with the provost’s guidance, though still leaving students with work to do the week of the shooting.

There were also reports of professors resistant to offering an option to attend class virtually upon return – something encouraged by the administration.

One professor doubled down on a decision to hold classes in-person by assuring students that “the room has windows,” according to a report.

“As if that would solve the problem,” the student wrote in their report.

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Professorial pressure

Broad college professor Tom Dewitt, one of the professors reported, said he was trying to strike a balance.

He began the first class back with a discussion about what happened and what everyone was feeling. He shared his experience as well, thinking students would “feel more comfortable knowing that their instructors shared their pain.”

But then he moved on to course business. In an email to The State News, Dewitt said that “while not forgetting the shooting, I encouraged students to get on with their lives, as it's best they stay occupied, including the work that we were doing in class.”

Acting on guidance from the provost’s office telling professors to “move forward,” he dropped the material from the week of the shooting all together and started fresh with new content.

But for some instructors, moving forward with content wasn’t an appealing option.

Sustainable agriculture professor Julie Cotton, who was reported for assigning heavy coursework the week after the shooting, said she was frustrated by the guidance suggesting professors “should not try to make up for lost time.”

“It takes about 500 hours to put together one of our classes, so in the middle of the semester they say ‘just throw out the middle of your course and keep going,’ actually, that isn’t going to work,” Cotton said.

Cotton said the content in her classes “scaffolds” throughout the semester, with one concept building on the others, rather than breaking down into fully separate parts that could be taken out or rearranged.

When the shooting occurred, her online class had an open unit. Some students had already begun the work, so it would be “unfair” to throw that out, she said.

Cotton was also concerned that the content in question was addressing issues of race and equity, which she thought her students wouldn’t be exposed to in other agriculture classes.

So instead of dropping it, she rearranged the assignments into one bundle for the week after the shooting, with care given to offer extra time to the students who needed it. She then dropped the last unit of her class from the end of the semester for more time and flexibility around finals.

But the work assigned was still seemingly in conflict with the provost’s guidance, so Cotton was reported. She had to explain her actions to her department chair, who had contacted her with questions about the report.

“I’m not sure that any response to this horrific and saddening event could have been perfect, especially without the ability to provide additional support to instructors and students alike,” Cotton said. “They opted to put students first, which was important in that moment, and I support that decision.”

The shooting also complicated late-add classes, which are shortened courses designed to allow students to add an additional class after the first few weeks of the semester. They began just before the shooting in February.

Economic history professor James Anderson was reported for sending students two emails Feb. 15 – less than 48 hours after the first shots were fired – “strongly, strongly” advising them to purchase and begin course readings from the student bookstore as soon as possible.

“PLEASE START READING WITH THE EXTRA TIME YOU HAVE BEFORE MONDAY,” Anderson wrote in his email to students.

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The student wrote in their report that Anderson was putting “simply unreasonable expectations” on students, as after being told they would have no classes or assignments until Feb. 20, many students went home to their families, making them unable to access Anderson’s paper course-packets, available only at the student book store in East Lansing.

In emails to The State News, Anderson defended his instructions, saying he “was trying to maintain a degree of pedagogical normalcy in an abnormal situation.”

He also said he felt without guidance or good options for his already shortened classes.

“Provost gave no special instruction or guidance whatsoever on late start classes,” Anderson said in the email. “That put all late start instructors in a serious bind, because of time pressures.”

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