Commentary: Failing Lauren McCluskey before and after her murder. Are women taken seriously at the U?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins speaks at a news conference presenting the findings of a review of the Lauren McCluskey case, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. John T. Nielsen at right.

My wife and I became close family friends with the McCluskey family over the past 20 years. We observed and contributed to the evolution of their daughter Lauren McCluskey from an inquisitive and energetic toddler to a beautiful, warm, and caring 21-year-old woman brimming with future promise. We are devastated by Lauren’s brutal murder and are trying to provide support to the McCluskey family while also searching for our own emotional footing. Combine that with my past university experiences as a regents professor, department chair, dean and provost at Washington State University, and you have a summary of the foundation underlying my personal observations and thoughts below.

Try to imagine Lauren’s mother listening as her daughter drops her cell phone, is dragged into a car and, within minutes, is shot numerous times and killed by a convicted felon and known sex-offender. The monumental failures of the University of Utah, including its campus police, counseling services and campus housing entities, are astonishing. Despite Lauren’s relentless and painfully large number of pleas for help, her concerns were not taken seriously enough to afford her situation any level of urgency or action.

Her death could have been prevented if she had received appropriate support for her safety and security over the two weeks prior to Oct. 22. I will not rehash the multiple ignored opportunities for saving Lauren, nor the incredulous statements of the campus police claiming they were unaware of the deep criminal past of the parolee and murderer. But I emphasize the cruel irony of Lauren and her friends easily discovering that her future murderer had an alarming criminal past, in mere minutes through a simple personal computer search two weeks prior to her murder, and then Lauren and her mother explicitly alerted the police to this fact, to no avail. It is beyond imagination that a major university could have student support entities operate in such a disconnected, uncoordinated, noncommunicative and ineffective manner.

Lauren met with a university counselor about her concerns on at least two occasions, but her counselor did not take any action to summon additional attention to Lauren’s situation or seek protection for her. The campus housing staff were alerted by two of Lauren’s female friends that Lauren was in an unhealthy and controlling relationship and the perpetrator was planning to bring a gun to campus, but housing never acted to thwart such an obviously dangerous situation nor provided any assistance to Lauren. Lauren interacted with the campus police over 20 times in the course of two weeks to seek help, including an in-person visit to the campus police station with one of her female friends who later stated that she felt the police did not believe Lauren.

Due to the lack of response, Lauren contacted the Salt Lake City police department twice as she became increasingly worried about her situation, but they rerouted her calls to the stagnant campus police. Lauren was left to fend for herself. The day she was murdered, Lauren emailed the detective assigned to her case about her growing concerns, but that officer ignored the critical message while on a few days leave, and incredibly, there was no protocol in place for following up on critical messages by other officers on duty. After three attempts at calling a different police officer in an increasingly desperate attempt to seek action from someone in the campus police department, the officer finally called her back and explicitly verified that her worries about someone impersonating a police officer and trying to lure her out of her campus apartment were in fact correct. And then the officer did nothing.

Just hours later Lauren was brutally murdered. It is incomprehensible that so many individuals, in so many student support entities on campus, could be so disconnected and careless that they would not engage a student who was clearly and repeatedly expressing issues, concerns, and needs. The phone records, and the many accounts of other details relating to this case, indicate that this was an abject failure of the university to protect one of their female students. This woman, and her female friends, were not taken seriously, leading to Lauren’s death.

Sadly, the affront on Lauren and her family didn’t end with Lauren’s death. The university commissioned a supposed “outside” committee to review the situation and make recommendations. While there is no reason to believe the three committee members were anything other than honorable and accomplished individuals, the idea that this was truly an “outside” review is hard to believe. The male chair of the committee was a past director of the Utah Department of Public Safety, received all three of his degrees from the U. and has had a number of explicit affiliations with the university over time. A second member of the committee, also male, was similarly a past director of the UDPS. The UDPS, through its Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) division, provides the basic training required for certification of all police officers in the state, including campus police. Rather than “outside”, one is left to conjecture whether a more applicable term might be “sympathetic” to the university and to the UDPS? Only one member of the committee was female and did not have a previous affiliation with the UDPS.

If I were appointing an “independent” review committee, I would have looked for people who could provide observations that were clearly independent of the status quo. It is also relevant to note that the review committee chair contacted only Lauren’s father, Matt McCluskey, and not her mother, Jill, who used to speak with Lauren on a nearly daily basis. Matt told Jill that the chair contacted him, and he expected the chair to also contact her. After days with no contact from the committee chair, Jill requested that he also speak with her. When the committee chair called Jill, he apologized and stated that he had thought it was sufficient to only speak with her husband. Does that sound like a woman being taken seriously?

The press conference announcing the results of the “outside” commission was shocking. I was astounded to hear University President Ruth Watkins state that there was no reason to believe that Lauren’s death could have been prevented. I doubt that there is anyone on this planet who actually believes that statement, which sounds like something scripted by attorneys, perhaps in collaboration with a communications director, and perhaps also with input from the University’s Board of Trustees, all in an attempt to reduce risk and liability. That indefensible position, if not corrected, will ultimately be their downfall and will increase rather than reduce the university’s risk and liability, as well as shrink their credibility. The president should have projected leadership by rejecting that nonsensical position, and I am confident her continued viability as president will depend in large part on how adeptly she can have the institution appropriately reassume responsibility and accountability.

The probability of Lauren’s death would certainly have been substantially lessened if the university had provided escorts, given her police protection or simply made a phone call to the parole officer to reincarcerate a convicted felon who clearly violated the terms of his parole, eliminating any possibility of Lauren’s murder. Indeed, why would the university now, in tragic hindsight, seek to implement 30 significant functional changes in operations and procedures to address faults in behaviors and protocols if they really couldn’t have prevented anything? This illogical schizophrenic university position has added to an already intolerable level of pain and anguish that has been inflicted on the McCluskey family.

It is difficult to see how the chief of the university’s police department can continue to lead in the face of such dysfunctionality, and such inept operational policies and behavior by staff. And one also wonders whether this chief takes women seriously? He openly admitted during a TV interview that he failed to take University Hospital nurse Alex Wubbells’ (a woman) complaints seriously in a meeting he had with her. It wasn’t until he later saw the alarming video of her being forcibly detained in July 2017 by police that he changed his mind. (That nurse received a large financial settlement to close the case.)

It has been argued that people behave how they are led. If a leader does not take women seriously, then employees can tend to behave similarly. The campus police did not take Lauren’s or her female friend’s concerns seriously. And the officer who egregiously failed to report the crime of impersonating a police officer, and who also ignored the clear attempt at luring Lauren from her apartment on the day of her murder, should be relieved of duty for gross negligence (if not criminal negligence).

Due to space limitations, it is impossible to address the vast scope of personal and institutional mistakes and failures that occurred and resulted in the brutal murder of this highly accomplished student athlete. But one overarching and haunting conclusion is the crying need for the University of Utah, and others, to take the worries and concerns expressed by women on our campuses seriously and respond to them with urgency. In my view, a total reinvention of how this university provides support, safety and security for women on campus is desperately needed, and given the massive scale on which the university demonstrated its dysfunctionality, why should anyone have faith that this university can fix itself?

Based on my many years of experience as a university administrator, a truly outside (of the university, and of the state) commission should re-analyze the breakdowns in people and policies that occurred in this instance, and then most importantly, ensure through overseeing implementation that the numerous glaring problems are fully fixed. Unless and until that course of action is pursued, I personally would worry considerably about sending any daughter of mine to this campus.

Finally, from the University of Utah website’s “Message from the Chief”: “The Department of Public Safety staff is here to serve you. We endeavor to do everything reasonable to provide for the safety and security of our students, staff, faculty, and visitors.”

Does anyone believe that this institution did everything reasonable to provide for the safety and security of Lauren McCluskey?

Ron Mittelhammer

Ron Mittelhammer is a regents professor in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University. The opinions expressed are his own personal views, and not necessarily those of his employer.