The Maneater

Biggest gaffe: University Village

Maneater File Photo

The sore sight of extra shoring on each university-owned University Village apartment building is visible as you drive down Providence Road. It’s a reminder that oversight on MU’s part led to a fatality on the early morning of Feb. 22.

That day, when building 707’s upper walkway partially collapsed due to waning structural integrity, 18 residents of the graduate-student housing complex had to be transferred to alternate housing. But in the process of safely evacuating the facilities, one fatality resulted. Firefighter Bruce Britt fell and was trapped under the walkway. He was later pronounced dead at University Hospital.

What happens next? Action that comes too late but a lack of true transparency to rub extra salt in the wound.

The university immediately hired a structural engineering firm, Trabue, Hansen & Hinshaw Inc., to examine all university-owned buildings and ensure that everything else is safe. But it barred all media from asking extra questions, redirecting all questions to involved parties such as Director of Residential Life Frankie Minor and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cathy Scroggs to university spokesman Christian Basi. It wants to keep its plans of action relatively discreet, which is understandably hard when you’re in a town with so many media outlets.

Then the findings of the Trabue, Hansen & Hinshaw Inc. investigation came out, and they were almost unreasonably bad: Out of a total of four graduate housing complexes that were examined in 2008 — Manor House, Tara Apartments and University Heights were the others — University Village was the only one recommended to be demolished. But why didn’t it happen earlier? Even now, this question has not been tangibly answered.

So, finally, six years too late, the university announced on March 12 that it will permanently close University Village and the Student Parent Center that is also housed at the complex on June 30, with a date for the definite demolition still not set.

Now having been given the opportunity, University Village residents are terminating their leases. Student parents have also responded indignantly at the possibility of discontinuing child care services with petitions and vocal presences at open forums, and the Britt family is suing the UM System for Britt’s death.

In the face of anger and outrage, the administration could have been better at owning up to the mistakes it made, which could have taken the form of simply fielding more media inquiries throughout this process and directly responding to the student parents.

The results of the report speak for themselves in pointing to holes in former Chancellor Brady Deaton’s administration, so the best solution would have been to not look embarrassed and avoidant. Taking tangible steps to accommodate the questions and concerns of all parties involved, from parents to families to students and general residents, would have made MU look a lot better.

But the crux of the matter is that a stronger response from MU would have extended to salvage its legacy and reputation as rumors of “negligence” and “indifference” in the wake of such tragedies circulate.

The reporters that the university works so hard to train and take pride in as members of its acclaimed journalism school, will probably not let this one slide. And maybe, eventually, neither will other students of future classes.

In the wake of such tragedy, it would have been better if the university had been more open about engaging in a dialogue with Columbia residents, even while they themselves were equally scared about the repercussions of such an unexpected and terrible incident.

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