On two consecutive Thursdays, the University of Alaska Anchorage sent out messages causing students understandable alarm.
March 28, students received this message:
A felony assault occurred today off-campus. It is possible that one or both of the suspects involved may be coming to the UAA campus. The suspects were last seen in a dark blue or purple colored jeep… both suspects were armed with handguns.
This captured a lot of people’s attention. ‘Dear students, perpetrators of an assault off-campus are now likely headed toward campus, and most likely didn’t choose to abandon their firearms. That’s all we’ve got. Good night and good luck.’
About twenty minutes later, a second message was sent out by UAA: “There is no immediate threat on campus at this time.”
The follow up, boldly seeking out new frontiers of ambiguity, did little to ease the frazzled nerves of many students now anxiously looking out of their classroom windows. UAA Police Chief Rick Shell said the message “caused mass confusion and near-panic on campus.”
The two suspects were later identified as Omar Luis Ducasse Jr., who remains at large, and Benjamin Zeckovic, who now supports clean energy from behind bars.
Flash forward to yesterday. UAA upped the “bizarre and disturbing” quotient a couple hundred notches while maintaining unrivaled levels of vagueness:
UAA Campus Community: Respect is an important value at UAA and safety is our highest priority. For those reasons, we are compelled to inform you that an inappropriate incident involving a female cadaver occurred in the Health Sciences Building’s Gross Anatomy Lab sometime between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. In addition, an act of vandalism to building furniture occurred Wednesday afternoon in the same building.
Unlike the felony assault debacle, UAA declined to offer further comment. Neither have the authorities, as they proceed with an investigation into both the incident with the cadaver and the possibly-connected furniture that was vandalized.
The way the information was disseminated to students needs to be addressed by the university. These campus-wide alerts are understandably difficult to deal with at an administrative level. When something happens that students need to know about, the university needs to broadcast that alert. But the message has to be distributed in a way that seeks to minimize alarm, doesn’t jeopardize any investigations, all the while conveying the significant threat presented and outlining the best way students can protect themselves.
That’s a very tangled line to draw.
In both these cases, UAA managed to draw it with a big, sloppy paintbrush that failed to create a cogent message. These were giant belly flops in support of conspiracy theory forums.
The University’s college paper, the Northern Light, wrote after the March 28 incident that the message was sent out “to comply with federal Clery laws, a federal ruling that colleges and universities must disclose crime activity in and nearby campus.”
That makes sense for the first message, setting aside the initial forecast of felonious gun men arriving armed on campus followed shortly after by the “never mind, we’re all good” follow up. But, clearly, there was an immediate threat that students had a right to know about.
Yesterday’s “Cadavergate” message was different.
Campus authorities believed that every student should be informed about “an inappropriate incident involving a female cadaver.” But that message tends to give people on the receiving end the notion that something very inappropriate happened to a cadaver, and planted the miracle grow seed that reads: this threat easily translates to not-dead-people.
By specifying the gender of said cadaver, the message assigned what demographic should feel at risk.
The occurrence was then connected to the vandalism of a couch in the same building, implying that “the inappropriateness” (in the words of UAA Police Chief Shell) of whatever was done to the human school property was akin to vandalism.
By justifying last week’s message as necessary under the Clery Act, this week’s message was likewise received as a declaration of an immediate threat.
There is a reason why people are pissed.
I believe that UAA offers a wide variety of communications courses. I recommend to whoever is tasked with the delicate job of crafting these messages take several of them. Immediately.