A few years ago, a student who had failed my class screamed at me from across the parking lot as I got into my used minivan. I just drove away, but I remember asking myself this question: Is being a professor really worth this kind of abuse?
I knew, of course, that many of my colleagues — especially women, people of color, and anyone who didn’t have supportive administrations — often had it much worse. But over the past few years, as the pace of campus shootings has ratcheted terrifyingly upwards, I’ve often thought back to that encounter. And the sad truth is, I actually feel lucky he didn’t shoot at me.
Our response to campus shootings has become ritualized. As news of the UCLA shooting broke on Wednesday, panic spread — first among people on the ground, before rippling out into social media as every professor, student, parent and family member pictured themselves or their loved ones becoming a victim of this kind of violence. We feared news feeds of dozens of bodies as yet another killer with high-powered firearms roamed a temple of learning.
Instead, the UCLA incident appears to be more personal. We don’t know all the details yet, but on Thursday, Los Angeles police said they had found a “kill list” that included the name of William Klug, the UCLA professor who Mainak Sarkar — a former doctoral candidate — gunned down before committing suicide. According to Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, the incident was “tied to a dispute over intellectual property.” He added that the name of a woman that police found dead Thursday in Minnesota was also on the list.
Some might view this as just another workplace killing, one that in a day or two, few will be talking about. But this would be completely the wrong response. We should keep talking about this killing, and every killing, until we’ve brought the rate of gun violence down in this country. We must honor the dead by working to protect the living — and that means making it harder for angry people to get access to firearms, not by adding more firearms into the mix.
I’m still shaken by the details. As a college professor, my job is to help students grow, assess their learning, and push them to succeed. If I fail to do that because I am frightened of violence, then I can’t teach. Grades themselves aren’t really that important (though I’d lose my job if I just gave everyone As), but it’s vital that teachers feel empowered to urge their students to improve.
The tributes to the professor — shown in the media smiling, wearing a baseball cap, and holding his child in his arms — as kind and caring are just what I hope people might say about me some day.
So, what should teachers do? A few months ago, news broke that the faculty senate at the University of Houston was advising teachers to respond to a new “campus carry” law in Texas by avoiding any sensitive subjects that might get someone angry. Yet teachers in the state are expected to continue holding office hours. This means that in the state of Texas, faculty have been advised that students are going to be allowed to carry guns, and that teachers’ locations — when and where they’ll be (usually alone and trapped in an office) on a regular basis — will be freely available.
This is the context in which we’re all responding to UCLA. It’s not about campus carry, specifically, but about guns. There are too many. They are too easy to get. And too many right-wing politicians seem to believe the only answer to gun deaths on campus (or elsewhere) is to insert more guns into the process.
No one death — even of this smiling professor — is more tragic than the others. I’m in Chicago, where dozens of people were shot and six killed during Memorial Day weekend. Thousands of people have been shot and killed across the nation already this year. These deaths are tragedies and they occur in the United States with far more frequency than in any other developed country.
The problem isn’t angry people, but that angry people find it too easy to get guns.