The week began with the release of the annual safety report at Morgan State University, the so-called Clery Report, which must be issued on Oct. 1 by all colleges and universities that receive federal funds. “When you review the statistics, you will note that Morgan State University is a safe campus,” Lance Hatcher, Morgan’s police chief, wrote.
But two days later — before most people had even looked at the email that announced the availability of the report, let alone glanced at the document itself — Morgan officials were scrambling to assure students, their parents and a global media audience that “Morgan” and “safe” belong in the same sentence.
Coldblooded and cowardly gunslingers decided to let loose with multiple shots on campus Tuesday night. Their bullets injured five young people and terrorized hundreds of students and others who were in and around the Thurgood Marshall Residence Hall and the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, shattering windows in those buildings and hopes for a much-needed joyful week of homecoming activities. Anticipation was particularly high after the past few years marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a Tuesday that had been designated as a Wellness Day — one of two this semester in which classes are canceled so that students may prioritize mental health and self-care — became instead a day of severe trauma.
It became, as well, a day when Morgan’s carefully curated profile took a beating and its architecturally impressive campus became known not for being one of the “national treasures” designated by the National Trust for Historic Places, but as the backdrop for television reporters going live and social media content creators telling the story of the shootings for people down the block and around the world.
Morgan, a leader among the nation’s approximately 100 historically Black colleges and universities , joins the ranks of other institutions of higher learning that have experienced mass shootings. The most notorious took place in 2007 at Virginia Tech, when a gunman killed 32 and shot 17 others, while others were injured as they tried to flee.
Other universities have experienced multiple fatalities recently, but that hardly diminishes them as academic centers. That includes Michigan State University, where on Feb. 13, a gunman killed three people and injured five others before taking his own life. Three months earlier, on Nov. 13, three football players at the University of Virginia were shot to death on campus, and on the same day, four University of Idaho students were found stabbed to death in off-campus housing.
Those, however, are predominantly white institutions. HBCUs have a harder row to hoe when it comes to public image. So based on how Black people in general and HBCUs in particular are typically judged when anything bad happens, Morgan officials, other HBCUs and, most significantly, Morgan alumni, are rallying around the alma mater. They are trying their darndest to get ahead of the story, to shape the narrative.
“I pray to God that our children understand that this is not a Morgan problem. This is a societal problem,” said JoEllyn Jones, a New Jersey lawyer whose daughter is a freshman in the School of Global Journalism and Communication. She had driven down Wednesday morning to show support and to join about 60 others for an hourlong prayer service in the University Memorial Chapel. That sentiment has been seen and heard in social media, in campus conversations, and in callers’ comments on WEAA-FM, Morgan’s NPR-affiliated radio station.
On one alumni page on Facebook, members of the group paid little attention to items from news media about the shooting and the aftermath. But within a few hours of a post by Walter Field, an alumnus proclaiming his unshakeable loyalty, more than 1,100 had viewed it and chimed in with comments such as “They better know it! We are Morgan Strong!” and “Let’s Bear Down and stand strong!”
That loyalty cannot obscure the fact that the past few homecomings at Morgan have been marred by gun violence, though nothing like the randomness and the scale of what occurred this week. Some parents and a number of freshmen with whom I spoke said they had not known this history before choosing Morgan. Some began leaving campus to take stock of their futures before President David Wilson announced Wednesday afternoon that classes were canceled for the remainder of the week. Some parents, perhaps in the shock of the moment, are demanding guarantees that no institution can make.
After all, Morgan is in Baltimore, a city that does have a Wild-Wild-West image to live down. At the prayer service, a woman who lives near the campus and volunteers in Morgan’s food resource center for students in need tearfully gave her testimony, as they say in church. She does not feel safe in the neighborhood, she said, yet she was angry when her supervisor at her real job showed no sympathy when she told him that she’d be at Morgan that day. “The first thing he said wasn’t ‘Are you OK?’ It was, ‘What do you expect when you live where you live?’” She and her daughter both regret that they were afraid for the student-athlete to attend Morgan and is now at a predominantly white institution in Trump country, doing well academically but missing being around people who look like her.
While an analysis by The Baltimore Banner in June predicted a 2023 homicide tally that could be the lowest since 2014, that news gets lost in the daily barrage of headlines about shootings — including record numbers for high school-age teens in the city — and carjackings. In the Baltimore Police Department’s Northeastern District, with headquarters near where the campus shooting took place, homicides and shootings are trending downward.
On the Morgan campus itself, according to that Clery Report, there is very little serious crime. In 2022, there were three arrests for weapons possession. Most campus disciplinary referrals fell into the categories of underage drinking (43) and illegal possession of drugs (42). There were also three referrals for illegal weapons possession. The overall numbers in that report might assuage jittery parents.
While the prayer warriors lift up their entreaties, law enforcement authorities are looking for persons of interest, and Morgan administrators are considering additional measures, including restricting access to what is pretty much an open campus. But I think that efforts in two other areas will aid in turning the tide.
First is something that it is not popular to say in mixed company, so to speak. But it is what a caller named Dwayne said on WEAA the other day: In our families and in our neighborhoods, we must stop providing excuses and safe harbors for the bad actors in our midst. When people do what they did at Morgan — and worse — he said: “It is an assault against the community, which should be the worst crime that any Black person can commit.”
The second thing is what the best HBCUs have always done: expect and celebrate excellence. When I headed to my office in the School of Global Journalism and Communication after the chapel service, I stumbled upon a ceremony in which five alumni were being inducted into the Garden of Fame. Three of the more recent graduates included the recipient of a local Emmy Award and two Pulitzer Prize winners.
These kinds of activities strengthen Morgan as an institution that is defined by its works — not by an October surprise that upended expectations for a festive Homecoming Week.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.