You may have heard that last Monday, a couple of Native American brothers joined an admissions tour of Colorado State University and aroused the suspicions of a mom, who called the police.
Here is what the mom told the CSU dispatcher: “There are two young men that joined our tour that weren’t a part of our tour, they’re definitely not a part of the tour, and their behavior is really odd, and I’ve never called ever, about anybody, but they joined our tour, they won’t give their names, and when I asked them what they wanted to study, like everything, they were lying the whole time, and they’re just wearing very, they just really stand out, they stand out, like, like their clothing has dark stuff on it, weird symbolism or wording on it, and one of them had his left hand in his oversized sweatshirt the whole time.”
The dispatcher asks where the caller and tour group are. The mom answers, then says “It’s probably nothing. I’m probably being completely paranoid. With everything that’s happened — ”
The dispatcher cuts in, trying to definitively pinpoint the group’s location. The mom confesses that “I feel completely ridiculous. They’re probably fine.” The dispatcher says “It’s fine, we certainly don’t mind you calling, I’d rather you call on us to check on it and have everything check out okay.” “If it’s nothing, I’m sorry, but they actually, like, upset me, and I’d never felt like that.” The dispatcher asks the mom to describe the pair, and in addition to providing a physical description, the mom says they’re Hispanic and from Mexico.
The police accost the young men and determine the mom is way off-base: they’re part of the tour (they arrived late), they’re harmless, they’re Native American rather than Hispanic, and they’re from New Mexico.
I didn’t face a situation like this as UC Berkeley’s risk manager, and I have no idea how the internal discussions among Colorado State’s administrators went. But I can take a highly educated guess.
The first question would have been, “Who’s available from media relations?” because they knew this would become a story. (This sort of thing always becomes a story.)
The second would have been, “What actually happened?” The chief of police would be asked to produce a transcript of the 911 call and a report from the responding officers. The tour guide would be interviewed as soon as possible. Someone would be asked to contact the young men and get their version of what happened.
Once the facts were in, the next step would be to analyze them, probably with the campus attorney leading a privileged discussion.
If the risk manager participated, she’d quickly conclude there was no liability. Despite the lack of basis for suspicion, the police had a duty to respond — imagine if they didn’t and the young men turned out as bad as the mom feared. (I’m thinking her “with everything that’s happened” reference is to school shootings.) The police treated the young men professionally and in accordance with training. And the tour guide was unaware of the situation and did nothing to make it worse.
Which means it’s a public relations problem, even though the incident was between two parties whose bad experience was with one another, not the school.
In this kind of situation, the usual response is to regret the incident occurred, express sympathy for the brothers, mention all the good things the campus is doing in this area, and be done. Instead, CSU went big: university president Tony Frank addressed the situation in a May 4 letter.
He doesn’t affirm that the police and tour guide acted appropriately. He also declines to call out the mom. Instead he pledges to improve admissions tour procedures before acknowledging that “as a parent and as a university president, I worry even more about the big strides we need to make as a culture and a campus.”
He should have stopped there — he even acknowledges as much! — but continues for several paragraphs, eventually landing on the subject of hate. Evidently CSU has experienced several racist incidents over the past year. But what the mom did is not the same as hanging a noose in a residence hall. I don’t mean to minimize her implicit bias, but proportionality matters, and from my perspective, tying these incidents together reinforces the impression that CSU has a racism problem — which, as a whole, it almost certainly doesn’t, at least in comparison to the rest of the culture.
This is probably frustrating for the people inside. Their well-meaning president revived the story days after it happened, making it bigger, and also made the campus seem responsible; as yesterday’s Associated Press story put it, “the incident last Monday has caused an outcry as a case of racial discrimination and prompted the university to apologize and try to make amends.” [italics mine]
Risk Management 101: universities are not islands from endemic social problems. And they shouldn’t accept blame for the acts of outside parties.