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Reflections from Crisis: A Phenomenological Study of the Texas A&M Bonfire Collapse

Health, Safety, and Well-being Student Success Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Campus Safety and Violence Prevention
October 8, 2019 Katie Treadwell Forrest Lane Brent Paterson


The 1999 Texas A&M University Bonfire collapse killed 12 students and injured dozens. Response to this event involved a number of campus administrators, lasted for many years, and led to the emergence of new risk management standards. Nearly 20 years later, researchers explored how campus leaders experienced the tragedy and reflected on their role over time. The study analyzed personal experiences and lessons learned from 15 leaders who led the crisis response and recovery.

Much has changed over the past 20 years in the ways colleges and universities prepare for and respond to campus crises. Prior to this time, campus crisis plans, when they existed, tended to be procedural documents for emergency responders and focused primarily on natural disasters, fires, and hazardous material spills (Treadwell, 2016). These plans often failed to account for the effect of crisis on individuals. That is, they lacked a structured response to the emotional and psychological effects of a crisis on students and their families (Paterson, 2006), as well as the administrators who responded to them.

Resources have been created to help institutions better respond to crisis (Harper, Paterson, & Zdziarski, 2006; Hemphill & LaBanc, 2010; Studenberg, 2017; Zdziarski, Dunkel, & Rollo, 2007), and many senior student affairs officers perceive their institutions to be more prepared as a result (Catullo, Walker, & Floyd, 2009). We suggest there can be differences between preparedness to respond to the immediacy of crisis and navigating the long-term effects of it (Grace, 2019; Jordan, 2019; Treadwell, 2016). Rarely are reflections of administrators revisited in the years that follow in order to understand what it meant to be a part of a crisis response (Grace, 2019). Yet, many of these individuals continue to serve our colleges and universities. This study explored the reflections of university administrators who responded to the collapse of the 1999 Texas A&M University Bonfire, which resulted in in the death of 12 students and injured 27 others. Understanding the experiences of administrators who have responded to campus crisis may help us to better support the needs of those who respond to campus crisis and leverage their knowledge for future crisis planning.

Campus Crisis

College and university campus crises share a number of common characteristics, including a “negative event or outcome, threat to people and property, surprise or sudden event, and disruption to operations” (Harper et al., 2006, p. 4). They are also characterized by their broad impact on “personnel, property, financial resources, and/or reputation of the institution” (Zdziarski, 2006, p. 5). Whereas critical incidents may affect part of a campus community or a small number of individuals, a crisis can affect the entire institution and community (Shaw & Roper, 2016). This may present unique leadership challenges for an already complex institutional environment (Treadwell, 2016; Zdziarski, 2006). The 2007 Virginia Tech shootings served as a turning-point for campus emergency management and led to the formalization of complex and coordinated crisis preparation and response procedures (Studenberg, 2017). As a result, campus crisis response plans have become highly collaborative and sophisticated approaches designed to address a host of critical incidents and crises on a campus.

University administrators expend an abundance of emotional energy to support the growth, development, and overall academic success of the students they serve. Leaders charged with campus crisis response must frame their approach through hospitality, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, charity (also referred to as the principle of fairness), and comfortability with dynamic tension (Shaw & Roper, 2016). Such leadership responses require a deeply personal investment from the administrators involved. As is often the case for professionals in any helping field, these administrators sometimes fail to achieve a healthy work–life balance (Askers & Heiselt, 2010; Gores & Kwai, 2010). When disaster strikes, these administrators may not receive the support they need to cope with the tragedy that shakes their community, erring instead on the side of suspending their own needs to care for students and other individuals (Van Brunt, Raleigh, & Johnson, 2009).

There has been little written about the reflections and meaning-making of administrators in the years that follow a crisis response. Much of the existing literature on campus crisis focuses primarily on how to respond to it (Harper et al., 2006; Hemphill & LaBanc, 2010; Zdziarski, 2006). The immediate crisis response is important for institutions, but we must also acknowledge the impact on the personal and professional lives of these administrators, particularly since the institutional response to crisis and its effects can be long term (Harper et al., 2006). Treadwell (2016) found that if campus administrators charged with crisis response intentionally reflected on their experiences, many did not begin to do so upon their experience and the personal impact on their lives until they considered the crisis to be over—which typically began at the first anniversary of the crisis, but in some cases was delayed until the final lawsuits concluded (anywhere from 5 to 15 years following the crisis). The collapse of the 1999 Texas A&M University Bonfire provides a unique opportunity to explore the long-term reflections of administrators based on an event that is often seen as a seminal case study of how institutions respond to campus crisis.

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