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Guest opinion: University of Utah fatally failed Lauren McCluskey

Student athletes and fellow students gather at the Park Building at the University of Utah for a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. McCluskey was killed Monday October 22, 2018.
Student athletes and fellow students gather at the Park Building at the University of Utah for a vigil for Lauren McCluskey on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. McCluskey was killed Monday October 22, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In my 14 years of university administration (department chairman, dean and provost), I learned some of the fundamental principles of university leadership. One is that a university’s success or failure depends completely on the performance and behaviors of the people in it. A second is that any new or existing policies, procedures and aspirations mean nothing if administrators, faculty and staff are not effective in implementing them.

The University of Utah police chief, the president and the board of trustees are paying insufficient attention to these fundamental principles. There is, of course, no question that some personnel were negligent, incompetent or secondarily complicit in the tragic and preventable murder of Lauren McCluskey, yet the resolute position of the university is that no one should be fired. This was stated in previous comments by President Ruth Watkins and emphatically reaffirmed at the recent Feb. 12 board of trustees meeting, where Watkins stated: “I do not believe it serves the ultimate mission of enhancing campus safety to fire anyone who acted in good faith.” Moreover, it was also previously stated by Watkins, and affirmed by H. David Burton, chairman of the board of trustees, that there were no plans to pursue disciplinary actions or hold individuals personally accountable. To date, they have issued no explicit statements to the contrary. Really?

Lauren contacted the campus police more than 20 times during the 10 days leading up to her murder, and nothing of any substance was done to assist her or protect her. She was on her own. Was that a good faith effort from authorities?

On the day of her murder, the detective assigned to her case was on leave and did not have the good sense to make provisions for forwarding critical time-sensitive messages to other on-duty officers.

Lauren’s very last plea for help hours before her death was to an officer who explicitly verified for Lauren that a message she received was someone impersonating a police officer (a crime) and the message was an ominous attempt to lure her out of her apartment. The officer did nothing. That is neglect of duty, reckless endangerment, if not criminal negligence.

As documented in the Offender History Report of the Adult Probation and Parole Office, an officer from University Police called them minutes after Lauren was shot to death seeking information about the murderer, where from the report, that officer “stated the offender was a suspect in a homicide that just took place on the campus” and “if I had anyone out who could possibly help them locate the offender.” The campus police claimed for the entire time Lauren was seeking help that they did not know the murderer was on parole, but yet minutes after Lauren’s murder they knew to call the parole office to ask for location and contact information about the offender?

Housing authorities were explicitly alerted to the fact that the murderer intended to bring a gun to campus and was violating university policies but alerted no one and did nothing.

Lauren was meeting with university counselors regarding her issues and did not receive any material assistance to support her safety or security.

The University Police chief has been leading a department that was found to have at least 16 glaring deficiencies impairing its effectiveness and functionality and contributing to the probability of Lauren’s death.

In my view, Watkins dismissed the most important component of addressing safety and security problems at the university: the personnel who are charged with providing it. Only board member Phillip Clinger addressed the critical personnel question in the recent trustees meeting, asking, “How can you reassure us as trustees that with the specific circumstances that happened in the McCluskey case there has been proper accountability for the people involved in those incidents?” after which Watkins answered she was “guided by my best judgment.” She also stated she implemented “awareness, training and education that happened at a minimal cost.” I must say that I am neither reassured nor inspired by the idea that the investment in safety and security was implemented at minimal cost.

On Oct. 25, Gov. Gary Herbert said, “…if there’s mistakes made take corrective action,” and then initiated an investigation of how Utah corrections and parole officers handled the case. The time has come for the governor to extend his investigation of personnel to the behaviors of police officers, administrators and other personnel at the university, beginning with the board of trustees, the president, the chief of police and on down the chain of command. Surely the governor does not believe that the multitude of deficient and missing processes and procedures, and the myriad performance and behavioral errors by individuals, were simply due to some mystical unidentifiable force for which no persons were responsible or accountable. Without engagement by the governor, and likely necessary regardless, a truly external review of this catastrophe by outside entities such as the U.S. Department of Justice is warranted.

As it stands, all of the individuals whose errors in judgement, deficient performance and negligent behaviors that fatally failed Lauren McCluskey remain in place, and it is unclear that they are even being held accountable for their actions, let alone facing any form of discipline. In good faith, it is difficult to feel reassured that some of the same fatal mistakes would not happen again.