Don't Capitulate to Tragedy

How Northern Illinois University can move on


The University of Texas Tower is one of the glories of Austin. The 71-year-old limestone skyscraper rises 307 feet above the tree-shaded campus, dominates the city skyline and, on special occasions like a national championship, is lit up in the school's signature orange. Turn on the PBS show Austin City Limits sometime, and you'll see it glowing behind the musicians.

But the building's history is not all happy. In 1966, Charles Whitman carried several guns up to the observation deck and began firing at passersby on the ground. By the time police shot him to death, he had killed or wounded dozens of people and assured that he and the tower would forever be linked.

Yet the university and the city refused to let that be the final chapter. Not only did the tower stay, but the public was allowed back in, though it was closed in 1975 after a rash of people jumping to their deaths. In 1999, after the installation of a shield to prevent suicides, the administration once again opened the doors. Four decades later, the association with Whitman is inescapable. But that is only a small part of what the tower means.

There are lessons there for any institution that goes through a similar tragedy: Be strong. Hold to your own purposes. Understand that this will pass. Don't let a psychopath govern you from the grave.

But none of these was offered by the governor of Illinois or the administration of Northern Illinois University in the aftermath of the Valentine's Day slaughter in a lecture hall on the DeKalb campus. In what must come as a shock not only to the people of the state but the rest of the country, they propose to bulldoze the building and replace it with a new one, at a cost of $40 million.

If the facility were an ancient firetrap, this might be the right moment to do the inevitable. But Cole Hall is a perfectly functional building that, having been built in 1968, is younger than your average tenured professor.

Until now, as The Chicago Tribune reported last week, no one thought it needed replacement: "Instead, a $20 million request to renovate the Stevens Building, which houses the anthropology department and theater program, has consistently been at the top of the university's capital requests."

Officials, however, insist it would be unthinkable to use a building scarred by terror. NIU President John Peters said he "made the decision that we had to raze that, we had to demolish that building and replace it with something fitting, something fitting our needs and as a memorial." NIU board chairwoman Cherilyn Murer agreed, "Instincts told you that we cannot have students in this building."

But a lot of people in the state have instincts that say something very different: You don't squander $40 million to erase a memory that can't be erased. Lots of places have witnessed nightmarish events. But we normally don't punish the building. We mourn, we remember, we use the site to help us understand and overcome what happened, and we press on.

That's what happened at the University of Texas. It's what happened at Virginia Tech, where a mass shooting took place last year. It's what happened at Columbine High School.

Ford's Theater in Washington remains an operating playhouse even though Abraham Lincoln was shot there. The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, where Gov. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, still serves as the seat of state government.

No one would have seriously suggested levelling those buildings just because something awful happened in them. They are part of history, and history is often dark and savage. To wipe out a place merely because of a grim event is not an act of healing but an act of capitulation.

Returning to Cole Hall after the massacre promises to be painful for students at NIU. But pain is a part of life that college students, like everyone, must learn to endure, preferably with courage and resolve. Restoring the building to the noble use for which it was meant—higher education—would help in that process.

Most important, it would allow NIU students to show what they are made of. As President John Kennedy said, some things are worth doing not because they are easy, but because they are hard.