A look at the Town Hall Meeting with Father Peter



Matthew Sheridan

On Tuesday evening, Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D met with students and members of the Villanova community in the Connelly Cinema as part of an open forum. Unsurprisingly, much of the night focused on the University’s recent decision to transform part of the University’s Department of Public Safety into a sworn and armed police department.

Since Donohue’s announcement that the first police officers would be in place by fall of 2016, there has been widespread criticism from various factions of the University. Almost immediately, students planned a march and silent protest against the decision and the way that “the voice of Villanova students, faculty members, and other members of the community have not been heard in this decision.”

About 125 community members attended the protest. The Villanova Association for Change and Transformation held an informational forum on the decision. Letters to the Editor were sent in to the three subsequent issues of The Villanovan from a priest on campus, the Faculty Congress, and the Criminology department at Villanova, the first of which questioned the decision while the latter two condemned it outright, citing data showing that an armed public safety department would not actually increase safety on campus.

The purpose of Tuesday night’s event was to give community members the opportunity to open dialogue on any issues with the University’s president. The event began with a statement from members of CAT and SGA about respecting opinions and listening to students. From there, Donohue took to the podium with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the decision.

He told the nearly full Connelly Cinema crowd that in 2013 a campus-wide survey was conducted that asked students, faculty and staff whether they supported Public Safety officers being sworn in as police officers, whether they should arm them or not or if they preferred no changes at all. Among Staff and Administration, 43% wanted sworn and not armed, 30% sworn and armed, and 17% no change. Undergraduate students were strongly opposed, with 59% supporting no change, 25% sworn and not armed, and only 9% armed. University faculty echoed the undergraduate sentiments, with 42% supporting not armed, 36% no change, and 14% armed. Graduate students were somewhat similar, with 40% supporting sworn and not armed, 25% supporting no change, and 24% no change.

From there, he explained that a task force was enacted to study the topic and make recommendation. The group made four recommendations: conflict resolution training, a support and review committee for oversight, developing strategies to build trust between public safety and community members, and to create a Center of Campus Safety Peace and Justice that will develop “innovative and non-invasive security systems and advanced campus safety methodologies.” He proposed this to the Board of Trustees.

Donohue also asked an outside public safety agency to come in and do a study to make additional observations on the situation. This group found that the University’s public safety officers were already acting as police officers, just without any of the authority of police. As such, they made a recommendation to transition towards a sworn police department over the course of three years, and to consider arming the police during the final year. It was during the University’s Board of Trustees October meeting of this year that the decision was made.

Following this presentation, the floor was open to questions from students. Except for one question, every single student who took to the microphone raised points of objection with various facets of the decision. The University’s Catholic identity, the relative unlikeliness of an active shooter and the lack of communication between the University and the students were all addressed.

Racial profiling was an especially prevalent topic, with multiple students asking Donohue how the University could ensure that minority students would not be the targets of the type of profiling that has been the driving issue of American discourse over the past year. One student’s question of “What’s to make us believe that the training that our officers undergo will be any different, any better than the training that’s received by officers in Baltimore or St. Louis?” elicited cheers from the crowd.

“I think the biggest difference is that if we don’t feel that a person is the right person or right for us then we can let them go,” Donohue responded.

One student also asked about the disconnect between the three-year plan recommended by the security agency and the announcement that police officers will be in place in fall of 2016.

“So it is a process and the people have to be selected, they have to be trained. This is not going to happen overnight,” Donohue said. “But in order for it to happen, you need to have somebody in place by the time it happens, so you need to have the authority to kind of manage all of this. So that’s when 2016, the process will begin.”

It remains to be seen what this process will actually be and how it will be instituted, however.