Clarification on news coverage concerning Zenobia Hikes
April 9, 2012
The following is a letter to the Virginia Tech community clarifying recent news coverage concerning Zenobia Hikes.
During the recently concluded trial concerning the events of April 16, some news reports did not accurately convey the nuances of the testimony, as many of us who were there can attest.
Several members of the Virginia Tech community brought public in letters to the Roanoke Times and Collegiate Times the mischaracterization, via the news, of the role played by the late Zenobia Hikes.
Considering the lingering emotions from the tragedy, we recognize that the misinterpretation caused by media coverage or the complexity of the trial may have been hurtful to our community as a whole. The trial lasted eight days and included dozens of witnesses and experts. No media coverage can get it completely right; it will certainly miss nuances, and might even miss substantial points. While reporters can get the facts right, the headline writers can condense information so much, the substance can get lost.
Unfortunately, we understand that some of our colleagues perceive through the media coverage that "blame" was attributed to Vice President Hikes' actions. That is not correct. Moreover, that was neither the intent nor the statement of the university's defense team. The Commonwealth's lawyers and the testimony of several witnesses who were present at the policy group on the morning of April 16 characterized the actions as follows.
Two students were mortally wounded, one of them already dead, by gunshot in a residence hall. An active police investigation was underway. In separate actions and in separate conversations the chief of police and the vice president for student affairs recommended that selected information be withheld until additional steps were taken, including next of kin notifications. This information/suggestion was communicated to the assembled policy group, digested, agreed upon, and under President Steger's authorization, a statement was released via email that differed from an earlier draft.
No one on the defense team nor any witnesses implied that Vice President Hikes was "responsible" for the collective actions of the policy group. She did not "delay" issuance of the notice, as more than one news report has noted.
Indeed, because of her compassion for students, her understanding of parent relations, and the respect of her colleagues, her suggestion to withhold some information until authorities could make next-of-kin notification made sense. As well, the respect for Chief Flinchum and his abilities recommending essentially the same thing because an investigation was under way underscored the logic of the recommendation. In the end, the decision belonged to the policy group with the president as the final authority.
Those who were present in the courtroom throughout the trial relayed the context of discussion and the sequence of information. As the trial unfolded, a very collaborative approach to decision-making that morning was apparent. The notification was not delayed solely because of Vice President Hikes nor because of Chief Flinchum. Rather, as a whole, the group agreed that selected pieces of information should not be included in that notification. That is a nuance lost in the headlines.
Zenobia Hikes was a highly respected member of the senior leadership team. Her strength and compassion on the morning of April 16 and throughout the subsequent hellacious days and months sustained and inspired those around her. Her profound impact on this community and the still strong affection universally held by her colleagues necessitates this clarification. Strong affections for her and the lasting positive impact she left on Virginia Tech student life continue to burnish her legacy.
Lawrence G. Hincker
Associate Vice President for University Relations