Virginia Tech Instructor: Ready to Move Forward The head of Virginia Tech's engineering department describes life on campus for faculty and students returning to Norris Hall, the engineering building where dozens were killed last spring in a shooting rampage by a mentally disturbed student who also killed himself.
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Virginia Tech Instructor: Ready to Move Forward

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Virginia Tech Instructor: Ready to Move Forward

Virginia Tech Instructor: Ready to Move Forward

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The president of Virginia Tech is responding to a report about the mass shooting on its campus. That report examined the action of school administrators both before and during last spring's killing of 32 people. It found many problems, starting with the university's failure to handle a mentally ill student who became the shooter.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger is emphasizing what the report did not say.

Dr. CHARLES STEGER (President, Virginia Tech): Nobody can say for certain what would have happened if different decisions were made; however, to say that something could have been prevented is certainly not to say that it would have been.

INSKEEP: After receiving the report, Virginia's governor said the university president should not lose his job. Still, the panel made more than 70 recommendations for changes in mental health education and law enforcement practices.

After the shootings last April, we called Dr. Ishwar Puri, head of Virginia Tech's engineering department.

Dr. ISHWAR PURI (Virginia Tech): We've lost two very distinguished and beloved colleagues. Several of our students were injured. The building that we work in was violated. So it's been a very difficult time.

INSKEEP: We asked Dr. Puri to join us again to describe how it's been for Virginia Tech faculty and students to return to campus, to go back to Norris Hall, where the shootings occurred.

Dr. PURI: Most of the individuals who've gone back have adapted, but there are some who are having difficulties in attending to their work simply because they're in the building, walking past reminders of what might have happened - hallways, doorways, et cetera.

INSKEEP: What's it's like for you just walking through that building now?

Dr. PURI: You know, I go in there with resolve. I go in there with a vision for the future. I go in there with a rededication to our mission, to encourage and to mentor the best human resources for the future young people becoming good citizens, productive members of society.

And I think I've been focus on that. I'm not quite sure if those who have passed away would have done this, but I think that they would have encouraged me to go on. I view this as a defeat on April 16. There was an incident. I was defeated and I admit that.

But I did not want to face defeat again. I did not want to be transplanted from that building. I did not want our program to die. The engineering science mechanics program at Virginia Tech is in its 99th year and I did not want it to in any way be weakened even more than it was on April 16 and not go on for another 100 years.

INSKEEP: We're sitting here with a copy of this report that came out from the state. It does not go so far as to say that all of this could have been prevented, but it is very critical of the way that Virginia Tech handled a mentally ill student who gave lots of signs, and there's also some criticism of security on the morning. What are people making of all that?

Dr. PURI: Frankly, the emotions are mixed. There was some judgment calls made on April 16 and prior to that. I don't think that there were any sins of commission. And really we are at the fork today. This can either be a story of recrimination or this can become a story of redemption.

INSKEEP: You've described decisions that were made before the shooting or even during the shooting as judgment calls that people made, that you don't seem to want to criticize too much. Is it necessary, though, has it been necessary to examine those judgments and draw some conclusions about them?

Dr. PURI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don't deny that fact. But you've got to see my viewpoint as someone who was in the middle of the shootings in Norris Hall. I was working. There were gunshots fired on my floor, steps away from where I was. I was evacuated by the police. The assassin had, I believe, about 175 assault rounds that he shot off. But he had another 260 rounds on hand.

And you know what? He was working his way down the corridor and he would have come to my office. And from my window in my office, I saw the SWAT team trying to come in. I saw them struggling with various things. And they had my best interest at heart. And I think for me to go back and to be critical of the law enforcement response frankly would make me an ingrate.

The theme of redemption is that we seek to find out what could have been done and institute strategies that might help us or even others around the country in the future.

INSKEEP: Do you notice any signs of different security when you walk around campus today?

Dr. PURI: Certainly, and certainly in Norris Hall. In terms of hours, one has to have a valid Virginia Tech I.D. to get in. Visitors have to be escorted. Part of this is antithetical to the university culture of the academic culture, which promotes the free exchange of ideas, where people walked in, they talk in the corridors.

But we are working our way to those things. I asked the university to not raze the building, not build a memorial there, because I want it to be a working building; that's the best way to give tribute to those who have fallen.

INSKEEP: You lost colleagues and friends.

Dr. PURI: I did.

INSKEEP: But you do not want a memorial for them there. You want the building to be their memorial.

Dr. PURI: Well, the building and the legacy, really. There is a memorial on campus, it's not in Norris Hall. As human beings we seek tangible physical symbols for memorials. But there are other kinds of symbols - a legacy, a program, excellence. Those could be symbols that could be used for a memorial. And that's how I approach my work every day, with humility in my heart and resolve in my mind, simply out of respect for my fallen colleagues - Kevin Granata, Liviu Librescu - great friends of mine, great scholars. And you know, I remember them every day. I really do.

INSKEEP: Dr. Ishwar Puri, thanks very much.

Dr. PURI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Dr. Ishwar Puri heads Virginia Tech's Engineering Department.

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