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How Our Universities Teach Violence

The recent tragedy at Purdue was a reminder that universities aren't isolated islands of learning, immune to the militarization of the outside world.
 
 
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Last week, a student came into a laboratory in the Electrical Engineering Department at my university, while class was in session, and shot a fellow student dead. Both the victim and the shooter were seniors--about to go out and start their lives in the world.

It was hard for many of us to find peace that night. I cannot begin to think of what it must have been like for the parents of both young men. As we gathered up the threads of our work lives in the week that followed, we received a long message from our university president about this tragedy.

It was his concluding remarks that caught my attention. He said that having reviewed crime statistics on campus, for him, "one fact stood out clearly"--that our campus was "an extraordinarily safe place" and "despite being among the nation's largest universities, data show[ed] that [it was] among the safest, including within the Big Ten."

If I found the shooting profoundly disturbing, this assessment of it I found utterly unacceptable. What the highest administrative authority in the university was in effect telling us was that this act was an aberration, something that just happened, and could not be explained by the general laws of history. And yet this was the fourth incidence of gun violence on campus since 1991.

Also, the Purdue shooting came in the wake of a series of school shootings in January: last week, two students were shot at a Philadelphia charter school, another took place at Widener University in Philadelphia, and another in New Mexico on January 15.

My 5-year-old now knows what a "lockdown" is, as her elementary school, perhaps understandably, cannot take risks after Sandy Hook. Indeed, my child's school had to actually go on "lockdown" three weeks ago when someone issued a phone threat.

I have two questions for my university president: Are all these incidents aberrations? Is this culture of violence to be explained only by the existence of tragically unstable individuals whose actions have only personal, and no social roots?

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Let me take you on a tour of my campus and show you where I think the university breeds the bacilli of violence that have the power to infect everyday life on campus. It is on such sites we ought to seek the roots of violent actions that haunt life in this country, rather than solely in individual psychosis.

My university is not just home to a football team with flagging fortunes--it is also a leader in the research and development of drone technology. A look at the Indiana Access to Public Records Act reveals a 2006 agreement between the university and the company Lite Machines, in which the university and its Birck Nanotechnology Center agreed to develop antennas for mini-drones at the request of the U.S. Navy.

Remember that the recent shooting was between two students in the Electrical Engineering Department? Well, according to reports:

Lite Machines is listed on the website of Purdue Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an engineering professional organization, as a sponsor of the group's involvement in an aerial robotics competition. Other sponsors of the group's aerial robotics program include military contractors Northrup Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Lockheed Martin.

Guess which professor was one of the many faculty members involved in this "aerial robotics competition"? The very one whose two teaching assistants were the shooter and the victim in the recent tragedy. In one of his old semester reports available online, this faculty member says his specific involvement in the aerial robotics competition was to develop a project whose: