Va. Tech students rally around school president

Charles Steger
Virginia Tech University President Charles Steger joins students at a rally on the campus in Blacksburg, Va., on Sunday, April 27. Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The second-guessing started as soon as the body count at Virginia Tech began to rise.

Students complained they weren’t told that a gunman was on the loose. Critics questioned why classrooms weren’t locked down right away. Later, word got around that administrators knew about Seung-Hui Cho’s troubled mind more than a year before he killed 32 students and faculty.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger bore the brunt of the criticism, prompting media speculation about his future at the school.

But after the most tragic week in school history, Virginia Tech students and alumni have rallied around their leaders. Alumni have mailed administrators handwritten notes of support. Students now swarm Steger like a celebrity, and have collected more than 32,000 online signatures in support of the administration.

While acknowledging that things could have been done differently, many students and alumni don’t think it’s fair to blame it all on the president or Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum — a sentiment indicative of the unity that has spread across campus since the worst shooting massacre in modern U.S. history.

“Nobody could have known what was going to happen,” said student Jesse Johnson, 28, who spent the week collecting signatures in support of the administration. “People in the media were calling for Steger and Flinchum to step down. Well, that’s an attack against our school too, and we weren’t happy with that.”

Four decades at institution
Steger, 59, has a long Virginia Tech tradition. He has spent four decades at Tech as a student, professor and administrator, serving as president since 2000. He is also a Virginia native and lifelong resident of the state.

Since the massacre, he has talked with investigators, visited wounded students and attended funerals. The day before classes resumed, Steger was greeted on campus by a group of students who hugged him and presented him with Virginia Tech banners and posters.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support,” Steger told students. “It is amazing how strong and how resilient the Hokie nation is.”

As the news unfolded last week, alumni circulated e-mails around the country rehashing events leading to the shooting. They found out that Cho attacked twice, more than two hours apart, targeting students in buildings on different sides of campus. They saw his maniacal, videotaped rant and learned he mailed it to NBC between attacks while police were searching for the killer.

They questioned whether Cho could have been stopped. But “every alumni I’ve spoken to, we all stand by the administration. They did the best that they could,” said Shelley Singh, 29, a Tech graduate who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

Anger at media
Budget Motels Inc. CEO William C. Latham, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1955, said he listened with agony from his office as the death toll grew to 33. But he got goose bumps when people started directing their criticism at Steger.

That was inexcusable, he said.

“It’s the nature of the press: Make the worst of any situation,” Latham said. “That’s what sells.”

Much of the student body agrees. The Hokie nation has soured on the media during the past several days. Most school buildings now have signs posted at the entrances telling reporters to stay out.

Johnson plans to present the university Board of Visitors on Thursday with an online petition with thousands of signatures of support for Steger and Flinchum.

Steger also received an endorsement from the governor.

“Charlie has been acting as a very, very good president,” Gov. Tim Kaine said this week. “This kind of event could happen anywhere on any campus, and there has been an innocence taken away from the students. But the positive values, and academic tradition of this university will help the community stay strong, and keep this university attracting students.”

Questions linger
Although the support for Steger has been overwhelming, a few students expressed anger with the situation after the first attack.

“I mean, there are 30 kids dead right now because classes were still in session,” said Billy Bason, a freshman who lives in the dorm where the first shootings happened. “To put students in a situation where they’re congregated in large numbers, in open buildings, that’s unacceptable to me.”

Tech alumni also have questions they want answered.

Author Homer Hickam, an alumnus, said he plans to talk with Steger when he comes to Blacksburg in May for the school’s commencement. Hickam said he’d like to suggest that the university put a guard at every building. And he wondered why the school kept Cho enrolled if he was known to have harassed women.

“In my day, someone like Cho wouldn’t have been able to stay,” Hickam said. “He would have been picked out as a trouble maker.”