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At UNLV, students, faculty return to a campus still haunted by gun violence

The start of classes Tuesday marks the first time students will return to in-person classes since last month’s shooting that left 3 dead.
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher Education
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On Dec. 6, a gunman shot and killed three UNLV professors and critically wounded a fourth, before he was killed by university police. For hours after, thousands of students, faculty, staff and administrators huddled inside classrooms and offices as they waited for police to sweep dozens of on-campus buildings, some still unsure if the threat had been resolved. 

Almost six weeks later, tens of thousands of students, faculty, administrators and staff return Tuesday for the beginning of the spring semester — many of them on campus for the first time since they were ushered out by SWAT officers. 

At an all-hands employee meeting last week, UNLV President Keith Whitfield struck a balance — at once acknowledging the scope and scale of the tragedy, but also saying plainly that the university would need to “remain focused on our core operations.” 

“From my perspective, I am not trying to rush us to get into the quote-unquote ‘other side,’” Whitfield said. “We're all going to heal and move from this differently — but we do have to move forward. We cannot go backwards.”

To that end, university leaders have moved in the last few weeks to triage the most critical issues before the new semester. That includes the repair or replacement of at least 500 doors in 21 buildings — according to numbers provided during last week’s meeting — that were damaged or destroyed by police during the building-by-building evacuation on the day of the shooting. Many have been replaced by “temporary” short-term solutions, in some cases metal sleeves that have been placed over doors. 

University Police Chief Adam Garcia also announced the hiring of a private security firm that would not have law enforcement powers, but would instead provide a “highly visible uniformed presence.” Those private guards would provide escorts to and from buildings, Garcia said, before adding: “They are simply there to provide visibility.” 

Administrators have also convened a new security and safety committee of more than a dozen student, faculty, administrator and staff members charged with producing specific policy and funding recommendations. 

The committee has become a cornerstone of the administrative response, and one that will pair with an ad hoc Nevada System of Higher Education committee that, Garcia said, could lead to campuses statewide homogenizing a patchwork of locks, cameras and other security systems that differ from campus to campus, building to building. 

But Bill Robinson — chair of the Faculty Senate and economics professor who worked in Beam Hall, where the shooting took place — told The Nevada Independent that he wished more had been done in the weeks between the shooting and the new semester. In particular, he called for panic buttons, better door locks and more alarm systems — requests he says have been near the top of faculty wishlists for two decades. 

“We could have started working on a lot of those things over the last month and just told people ‘Hey, you can't fix everything in a month but we've got this in progress,’” Robinson said. “But we can't say that because we haven't. We're waiting. We set up a committee. And I wanted a much faster response.”

In an interview, Casey Wyman, UNLV’s chief financial officer, still left the door open for potential fixes that could come sooner rather than later, a by-product of what he called “institutional flexibility” on the funding side.  

“If we have that ‘aha’ moment, I think the intent is not to wait, but rather, move forward,” Wyman said. “Again, it's all within the scope of — we're talking something that's a few hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to improve [that] — we'll do that. And if not, more in the millions of dollars, then we're going to work through those processes and make sure that we can expedite them as quickly as possible.”

One of the biggest unanswered questions — what to make of Beam Hall — remains deferred, at least for now. 

Whitfield announced on Jan. 5 that Beam Hall would remain closed to the public through the semester, with classes normally held there shifted to other buildings and a small number of Business College classes (which is housed in Beam) moved online. 

Robinson said some departments have offered to switch with the Business College and take over Beam instead. But the lingering trauma attached to the offices and classrooms could create a new concern: Money. More specifically, he said, the potential millions that may be needed to erase the old layout of the building and reconfigure a new one. 

“At minimum we need to reconfigure the buildings,” Robinson said. “Which means we need the Legislature and the governor to give us a whole bunch of money to do some reconfiguring before we get to that point that anybody could permanently work in that building, I think.”

How soon that money could come will likely depend on the multicommittee bureaucratic process now playing out, Wyman said. Though he pledged during the all-hands meeting that UNLV would approach the legislative Interim Finance Committee — which controls state money disbursements in between legislative sessions — for emergency state dollars, he clarified in an interview that it would only come as part of a systemwide process.

“But they [NSHE] are looking at it, and IFC meets monthly,” Wyman said. “And when we're ready, when we have a collective, defendable position, we're going to go forward.”

As faculty, generally, prepare to return to the fold, Doug Unger — a UNLV English professor and the president of the university’s Nevada Faculty Alliance chapter — said instructors fell into two camps. 

The first were faculty who were ready and eager to come back — “let’s jump and reassert ourselves and our mission,” as he described them. The second were those who still weren’t ready, those who felt “insecure and shaky and not safe to be on campus quite yet.” 

That dichotomy exists for many students, too, according to Graduate and Professional Student Association President and Ph.D. student Nicole Thomas — who was on campus the day of the shooting and said her peers fell on a “wide spectrum.” 

“There are a few grad students that I've talked to who are honestly completely fine, kind of eager to move on, getting back to that normalcy,” Thomas said. “While there are some people who are like, ‘I'm still very scared to come to campus, there's the sense of safety that was shattered.’”

Personally, Thomas said each time she had come back to campus — for the memorial, for winter commencement, for a handful of meetings — had been different. 

“I thought I handled things relatively well, but then when I got home, my body was very shaky,” she said. “My chest hurt. It was one of those things where I had this physical response even though I wasn't even processing it mentally.”

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