Q: Whose idea was it to write the letter last Sunday?
Bruce: It was really a group effort. You don’t make decisions individually. I’ll give you a bit of background in terms of how we made it. You don’t make up the stuff as you go along. We have an incident command all trained in it. We had a simulation two weeks ago- it was on an earthquake - and we had at least sixty people working on it. We all have command incident guide books on USB. The first thing that is done (in a situation) is that we gather a group of people over at the incident command room in the Public Safety Building. Depending on the people involved, we bring in different folks. In this case we brought Carly and she came right in. My first job is to appoint an incident commander. I appointed Vice President (Eileen) Coughlin as the incident commander. I picked her because, again, my emphasis at that point on a Sunday morning was recovery. I thought our campus has been hurt, it’s been damaged and how can we recover as a community.’
Around the table, about then I said ‘We have to get a communication out and as soon as possible.’ It’s a group decision and everyone agreed. Carly had not yet come there yet. I scheduled (the meeting) at eleven. Carly was there shortly after eleven. I’m not sure how we found you… (referring to Carly)
Carly: I think Ted (Pratt, Dean of Students) had my cell phone number.
B: I like to write. So I went off and wrote the first draft, so I pounded that out. But then I sat around and Carly made some critically valuable suggestions to improve it. But what it really is, and this is what I don’t want to give any misimpression on: is that it’s Carly’s and my statement, because we both know in our heads and said ‘yes that’s right.’ That’s how I would answer it.
Q: What was the process in writing the statement?
B: I think by writing. I sometimes think that some people don’t write clearly because they don’t think clearly, and it’s really a very valuable skill to develop. I’m in this job right now because I can write well. A couple people noticed that I could write a coherent paragraph and asked me to help them out with some stuff. And that has really paid off well in my career.
One reason why you appoint an incident commander, instead of being it yourself, is because you have other duties you have to do. In this simulation of an earthquake I wasn’t going to be in that room, I was going to be walking around campus. I needed to be seen and visible. So I just took my laptop off to a separate room because I didn’t want to interfere.
First, I asked for a complete briefing for everything we knew. Then I just went off and wrote the first draft. I brought it back and shared it. There were probably about eight or nine people in the room at that time. We all had a copy and a lot of improvements were made. I will say again, because I care a lot about good writing, I have made the mistake in a long-distance past of taking everyone’s suggestions and ending up with a corned beef hash written by a committee without any voice. It’s really important to have a bit of voice to it.
Q: When did you first hear about the riot? And what was your initial reaction?
B: I was stunned, it was just disbelief. I heard about it Sunday morning in a phone message from Vice President (of Business & Financial Affairs) Richard Van Den Hul. I just found it hard to believe. I asked a couple questions and my next step was to call an incident commander and schedule an assembly at 11 a.m. Carly found about it sooner than I did.
C: I knew about it as it was happening. Being a student on social networking sites I had text messages rolling into my phone. So, I wrongfully assumed that everyone knew that this was going on because it was so apparent to me what was happening. I live down on the corner of Oak and N. Forest St., so I could hear some of the things as they were happening as well.
B: It had been a long board week, so probably about around 10 p.m. I was asleep in bed. You always learn from these things. We will do a thorough debriefing, but one of things that has already been said, [is that] I should have been notified immediately and been on the scene immediately. The fact that I wasn’t is being addressed as we look at our processes.
This isn’t about discipline, this is about learning about how or whatever the incident is next time, how we can do a better job. Usually I’m following Twitter. But I had got home late and I had just gone to bed.
C: I myself was actually woken up out of bed. So all of a sudden my phone started blowing up.
Q: What did you feel when you heard about it?
C: Utter disbelief. Just shock. You know, it’s not something that I can say I considered in the realm of possibilities for Bellingham, especially so near to our campus. I couldn’t believe what was going on. I had to keep refreshing the page to just kind of convince myself that this was actually happening.
Q: So was it the Western Front you were following online or just Facebook?
C: I was following everything. I had multiple windows up and open on my phone. Just kind of flipping back and forth, hoping that it would go away.
B: I follow anything with a WWU hashtag, so I saw the Western Front. In my reaction, which was somewhat slower, I got my first phone call and then I called Eileen, and thought ‘this really couldn’t have happened.’, So I called back again and had it confirmed to me everything that had already happened.
Q: So what do you think of the initial response that came from the Bellingham community?
C: I think the initial response from the Bellingham community has been exactly as I would expect. People are upset, but people are also coming together to express that this is not what happens in our community and it is not representative of Western students. I have really been affirmed and supported by community members that I have spoken with. Myself as well as two [Associated Students Board of Directors] VP’s and another AS employee went to the Bellingham City Council last night and read the resolution that the board passed. There were community members and council members there. Everyone was just echoing the same sentiment that, ‘this is not Western students. We appreciate having Western students in our community. We’re going to come together and, move forward and recover from this.’
Even before I spoke at the public comment there were people who were speaking - who didn’t know we were Western students - who spoke about the riots and said that they were very sad about it with the community. But along with that statement there was affirmation and support for Western. You can’t really classify it as positive or negative. I would say that the response that’s happening is indicative of this Bellingham community.
B: the responses I’ve had are exactly the same. They have come in email, social media. As I first looked out there, there were the usual hotheads who sound off about ‘how dare Western students do this to this community’ and that sort of stuff. I did see that. I saw it actually in my email. The first mistake I assumed that it was all Western students and it was not. There were Western students that participated, but I’m willing to bet that we could actually get the data that a minority of the folks there were Western students. Because if I look at the social media the day before, it was clear that people were coming up from Seattle for this block party and for all the parties in that neighborhood.
But then very quickly people began to get the facts and understood that of the three people arrested so far, none were Western students. They learned, for example, that Western students were there to clean up right away - Carly among them - and that this was not what Western was about. We sent the message that Carly and I put together out to all students, alumni and parents. It was of course on our webpage and all that sort of thing. I heard from a lot of parents who were saying exactly what the alumni were saying, that ‘we are very proud of this university and the statement you made reaffirms our pride in the institution.’
I heard sort of two different themes on this: ‘thank you for taking the position that people who engage in destructive and criminal behavior do not belong as a part of Western,’ which really was a key sense that Carly helped craft. But then there were others that said ‘use your judgment, don’t just blindly kick everyone out,’ which I fully concur with too.
Q: What happens now for those involved in the riots?
B: We’re looking at identifying people - and the process has already begun - who might have engaged in criminal and destructive behavior. That conjunction ‘and’ is important, because simply refusing to obey a lawful order to disperse is a crime. But just because somebody didn’t disperse doesn’t mean that they’re going to get thrown out of the university.
The question is: ‘was there destructive behavior also?’ That’s being identified and we are finding some indications of students who have engaged in such behavior. I am aware of only one case at this point. I don’t get involved in it. The judicial process doesn’t come [to the President’s office] But I have been briefed on one case and that will immediately go through our judicial process on a case by case basis. You never want to have a ‘one size fits all’ judgment. You have to consider all of the circumstances involved. I want to say more of that in a very personal nature, but I’ll let Carly -if you want to respond- to respond first.
C: I’m not sure that for all of the Western students who were there since there were so many ways [people were involved] that they’ll see that the culture of our university is rejecting [that behavior] and that there’s going to be a lot of positive peer pressure. My inbox is flooded with messages from students who just want to know what they can do to help the community. People want to organize work parties for public parks. People want to send thank you cards to officers who were responders. It’s just an outpouring of support from Western students. I think that’s what comes next for our community, including those that might have been participating Saturday night.
B: The personal anecdote I want to share, just because it means a lot to me because I think it really captures what it means to be an institution of education. My dad was dean of students at [University of California] Berkeley and he died at a young age. But at about twenty or twenty five years after his death I had been on the faculty of staff at University of Oregon. And I was talking to another professor there - very successful, highly written - and he mentioned that he had been at Berkeley as an undergraduate. So I asked what period. He gave me the years and I said, ‘Oh, that’s the same year that my dad was the dean of students. Did you know Bill Shepard?’ He looked at me like I had just mentioned a ghost and said ‘I have to show you something.’
So he opens his wallet and he pulls out a crinkled old piece of paper and on it is my boyhood home phone number. And he said, ‘when I was at Berkeley I got into a fight. I hit another person and I injured him. I was called into your dad’s office. He kicked me out of the university, which I deserved. As I was walking to the door he stopped and said ‘wait a minute.’ He wrote the home phone number on the piece of paper and said, ‘if you promise me before you ever again hit another human being you call me, I’ll let you stay in.’”
That’s what I mean by a judgment call by a professional. We are in an educational institution. So whatever else goes on, our first and foremost duty is to prepare people to be productive adults and to be successful. That’s what I mean by keeping our brains in gear, and also using our hearts and our minds when we are judging these things.
Q: Have you been coordinating with the police in contingency for events like this in the future?
B: Yeah, although this is something that has always been going on when we do these simulations. We had one downtown where we had the fire department, the police, the hospital, so we’ve always been doing that coordinating. We have a better relationship between the Bellingham police and our public safety than I have ever seen at any university. We helped them out: we had officers there during the riot as backup back at the campus. They help us when we need help on our campus. We share information very easily, very quickly, so it’s really been a good relationship. We will as always go through a debriefing and ask what we could do better. I am not aware of anything that could be done better there, to better coordinate, to better prepare, but we’ll certainly ask that question. I should say that while this one is not visible, we probably go through something where we have that incident command activated and in that room probably twice a quarter: it could be a suicide, it could be a student who’s lost in South America, it can be all sorts of things to cause that to happen. But we look to make sure we have all our things in, all of our connections in. Unfortunately though, I think we have a lot of practice at it.
Q: Are you worried about this coming Hallo-weekend?
B: Yeah, we have looked at the calendar and have known for some time and we thought that that was where the primary focus was: which is another reason why what happened last Saturday came as a bit of a surprise, because we had put a focus on Halloweekend and had been planning the use of the Party Bus for some time now. It will be out and about and things like that, and we have staffing in anticipation of that. An important thing is for us to be real clear as to what our expectations are. I mean, you expect students to have fun, but a party of about one hundred or two hundred people is just asking for trouble. It’s really stupid.
C: I just want to encourage people to be smart. We’re college students, which means that we are young and we can have a lot of fun. But we also got here so we have brains in our heads. So we have to use them when we’re thinking about how we are going to have fun.
Q: As student body president how have you reached out and gotten those values out to students?
C: The Associated Students is cooperating right now with a bunch of student groups on campus to lead an effort to make sure that we’re sending out a unified message to students. So myself and AS VP for Student Life Robby Eckroth met with the elected students from the Residence Hall Association on Sunday to just hear them out, hear what they were thinking and to share ideas on how best to promote a culture of caring and health. We’re not sure exactly what that’s going to look like. We want to make sure that when we [promote this] it’s something that’s well organized and very effective. So, that’s being worked on right now. I helped push out the petition that’s going around, (on change.org) which has over 2,300 signatures. If you look at the petition, it’s really clear how students felt about the situation.
Q: Do you foresee any changes in potential action that can be taken by campus police or within the Student Code of Conduct because of this event?
C: I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. This is an institution of excellence both in character and academics. That goes everywhere from when you take your first class to when you walk across the stage with your diploma. I think the response from the community is really clear. People who were there said that it was clear that the police had a very clear and well-organized response. I have a lot of respect for those officers. There are only a few projectile items I can stand having thrown at me before I’d lose it or something. I have a lot of respect for those officers and those [community members] that were there.
B: I just want to reinforce what Carly just said. I have enormous respect for the fine and professional job the Bellingham Police Department backed-up by our officers did that evening. It’s a little bit early to give any specifics. However, the real question we‘ll be asking as we debrief is, ‘There are always things that we could be doing better.’ We will be looking at the code [of conduct.] However, while we always look at codes and enforcement, as a social scientist I always come back to the culture, which I think is so important in determining our behavior. That’s where we get our shared values. In part that’s from whom we attract to come to Western. That’s one of the worries I have. If we were to get a reputation as a party school, our demographics might change dramatically. When I talk to prospective students and their parents I always say, ‘Our students tell me that they like to have fun. But this isn’t the place where they feel like they have to get wasted every weekend. That’s not what Western is about.’
If you want a party school, there are good choices out there but don’t come to Western. I’ll put it just that bluntly. We’ve got to make sure our behaviors back up the messages the public is receiving about our culture. All the leadership Carly is providing - and from the students in general - is very valuable in avoiding things like this.
Q: How are you two looking forward to the rest of the year and for next year and the years to come in terms of networking the AS and the administration?
C: I am really glad this is happening. This event is going to form the catalyst for some really strong partnerships throughout our community: within our university, and between our university and the community. Already last night, having students present at the Bellingham City Council was almost unprecedented. This is the right thing to do and it’s what we’re going to keep doing. There are only good things to come in the future from our community coming out with these relationships that are being put together. I mean we are going to be able to make a lot of progress on some issues that have been pretty stagnant in the past few years for students: such as rental safety and things like that. I’m looking into the future very hopefully with the direction [we] will be particularly taking.
B: I certainly concur. Carly and I routinely meet every couple weeks just to make sure we know what’s going on. Carly sits on the president’s cabinet so that she can have an idea of what may be coming down the pipe three months later through the policies we are discussing, but also so she can inform us of what the Associated Students are thinking about, what we should be aware of before everything is sort of worked out. That’s my cabinet, I get to decide who’s on it. They’re really there to keep me out of trouble. They’re there for ideas to call us on that, and Carly is a part of it, so that’s really important. We’ve had, in my experience, Associated Students-staff on the same page dialogue, which is part of why we are more effective than the administration down in Olympia for example. But an incident like this really creates a bond of trust. We can disagree, but we trust each other. We don’t question each other’s values and who we are at core, we trust each other. We had a gathering of the Associated Students leadership and the schpeal I gave was “I’ll do dumb things, call me on it and tell me they’re dumb, don’t assume I do it just because I’m an evil person we make mistakes”. I have found it worthwhile in my career to never hold back from questioning someone’s motives and I would promise to do the same. So that’s the kind of relationship I would say we have.
Q: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you feel should be included?
B: I’m going to raise one point, because I’ve been thinking about it and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. I grew up in Berkeley, where we have Telegraph Avenue. In UW they have the Ave. At the other UW in Wisconsin you have State Street. And these are scenes where there are occasionally riots or really very serious problems. Almost ninety percent of the people there are not part of the university. Universities tend to attract hangers-on age twenty to twenty five who may have tried college but because they like partying more than studying they ended up dropping out. We have that community here and it is often responsible. When we bust parties and look at the arrest records the person whose place it is not a Western student and two thirds of the folks arrested are not Western students. This is really a responsibility we share with the community we say and why we talk with the neighborhood associations. That area down by the Jersey Street apartments has developed that kind of feel and that kind of character. I don’t think that’s healthy for a community or a university. So that’s something that’s a shared responsibility with the community to figure out how we can avoid a situation like that in the future. The university and our students will get blamed for what happens down there, even though they probably are just a minority that was involved.