February 18, 2003

University reacts to Code Orange

The University's response to the federal warning that American universities may be the targets of terrorist attacks reflects administrators' views that opening a public dialogue on such a threat would be premature and divulge ongoing preparations to react to a potential attack.

Responding to the FBI's warning last Tuesday that American universities may be among possible "soft targets" for terrorist cells, the University placed a link to a briefing on its Web site, reiterating its commitment to a strong Emergency Management Plan (EMP).

Just north of the city, Northwestern University responded to the announcement of Code Orange by purchasing back-up electric generators and communications equipment, according to an e-mail sent by its president to all students and faculty.

Though some at Chicago have been disappointed with the administration's general lack of communication, the University felt that it would be over-emphasizing the current level of threat by sending out a blanket e-mail, said Steve Klass, University dean of students.

"It's a delicate matter of balance," Klass said. "People are bombarded with this stuff in the media. Their awareness of this is as high as it's going to get. A mass e-mail may not have had much of an impact."

Emphasizing that the University is taking the threat of a terrorist attack as seriously as possible, Klass interpreted FBI director Robert Mueller's comment that terrorists may be planning "multiple small-scale attacks against soft targets" to be directed toward universities with particular targets, such as large sports arenas or weapons-related research facilities.

In the event that the University faces an act of terrorism, it would enact its EMP to limit damage. The EMP, reviewed heavily in preparation for the year 2000 and then after the September 11 attacks, sets up the framework for responding to attacks but does not suggest any preparatory measures.

According to Cheryl Gutman, associate dean of students for housing, however, the EMP can respond effectively only to a limited attack on the school.

The housing office has identified alternate spots for individuals to stay if their dorms are affected, Gutman said. The University, however, is not stockpiling supplies like duct tape and plastic sheeting, though ACE hardware in Hyde Park reported a recent surge in sales.

"It's impossible to plan for all the possible contingencies without having a better idea of the specific conditions," Gutman said. "Right now we're discussing how to communicate with students as to where they'd go. But this whole plan makes sense only if there isn't a larger catastrophe."

Glenn Klinksiek, director of risk management for the University, expressed a message similar to Gutman's, focusing on how the lack of specific threat keeps the University from taking definite action.

To prepare for an emergency, Klinksiek recommends reviewing "Are You Ready?" a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) booklet. Though the 139-page outline includes suggestions like stockpiling supplies before a biological or chemical strike--the type of attack about which Mueller spoke--Klinksiek said the threat is still too general.

"We are taking this seriously--the University evaluated the information available and decided that at this point that we just don't have enough information to take a specific response," he said. "The Homeland Security warning is intended for every citizen in the U.S.; some of it might be more applicable to certain citizens than others."

The University will continue to reevaluate its position both on communicating with students and taking action, according to Klass, who said students had been vocal to him on the issue, and asked for continued student input as the threat of attack develops.