To Lock a Door, It Takes a Puck

How one AAUP chapter improved safety in the classroom.
By Thomas A. Discenna

a hockey puck that was part of the Oakland University AAUP's fundraising campaign to provide classroom interior door lock

Doors and locks have been sites of struggle between workers and managers throughout the history of labor. A catalog of tragedies, from the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the 1991 fire at the Imperial Foods processing plant, testifies to the vital necessity of workers having some measure of control over the entrances to and exits from their workplaces. In spite of this history, and in spite of clear laws governing doors and their locks, the struggle between labor and management over entrances and exits continues to this day. Typically, these conflicts arise when managers lock doors to prevent theft—of “time” (taking breaks) or merchandise—or, more perniciously, lock employees in after hours to force them to complete tasks off the clock. Locked, obstructed, or otherwise inaccessible emergency doors remain among the most common problems reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. At stake in these skirmishes is not only control over the workplace but also the safety and well-being of workers.

The battle over doors at Oakland University, a public institution with a student body of about twenty thousand located in suburban Detroit, was, at least on the surface, somewhat different. As far as I am aware, no one in the administration had locked a professor in a classroom in order to compel him or her to teach. The problem was nearly the opposite: the doors behind which our faculty members teach and our students learn could be secured only by exiting the room and engaging the lock with a key from the outside. Under ordinary circumstances, such locks pose few problems. But under extraordinary circumstances, the problems with such locks are plain, as a training video produced by our university police department terrifyingly illustrates. In the video, an active shooter is shown gunning down students while, in a nearby classroom, a professor learns of the threat by text message. The professor proceeds to go out of the room (and, presumably, into the shooter’s line of sight) in order to lock the door and secure her students.

The video, Run, Hide, Fight, demonstrated a point that the Oakland AAUP chapter’s leadership had been trying to impress upon Oakland’s administration since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech: our classrooms lack an easy-to-use interior lock that could protect faculty members and students during a shooting. Like the managers of Triangle Shirtwaist and every other organization that puts narrow self-interest above the safety of their employees, Oakland’s administration not only failed to retrofit existing buildings but also failed to outfit new ones with a simple but crucial piece of technology: a lock with a lever that could be engaged with a flip of the wrist. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, an exterior door to our provost’s office was bricked over and the rest of the hallway housing the office of the president and the board of trustees was sealed with passcode locks. And while administrators claimed that these security measures had nothing to do with what happened in Blacksburg, it looked to everyone else on campus like no expense would be spared to protect upper-level administrators. Faculty members and students would have to fend for themselves.

The More Things Change . . .

For the better part of the last decade, the status quo remained in place. Administrators changed, two new presidents and various interim presidents were appointed, new provosts took office, and a former trustee became chief operating officer with responsibility over campus facilities. The shootings at schools and on college and university campuses continued, a constant reminder of the peril educators and students face. And still we did not have adequate locks on our doors.

Our AAUP chapter’s union leadership continued to agitate for improved security. We received the same answers in response: “Retrofitting the doors on the entire campus is too expensive,” “It really isn’t a problem if you would just leave the doors locked all the time,” and, of course, “We’ll look into it.” When my stint as chapter president began in fall 2017, I didn’t imagine that the status quo would change. My immediate predecessor had three children attending the university and had formerly taught at Virginia Tech. He felt this issue more keenly than anyone else I knew and argued as forcefully and courageously for a change as anyone could.

But the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the passionate, engaged, and inspiring response of the students there had a profound effect. Upon returning to classes after that tragedy, a student approached me and asked me to lock the door to our classroom because she didn’t feel safe. This was the first time I had received such a request. I knew that she was right, of course—none of us was really safe in those rooms with their inadequate locks. I complied with her request and spent the rest of the semester getting up to open the door whenever a student needed to be let back into the classroom. I also enrolled in the university’s active-shooter training, which is conducted by our police chief, Mark Gordon. It was here that I first saw Run, Hide, Fight and sat through Gordon’s thoughtful, pragmatic, and emotionally jarring presentation on how to survive an attack by an armed intruder.

Immediately following this training, I scheduled a meeting with Gordon and requested a meeting with our president, who had taken the reins of the university at about the same time I had become union president. The police chief and I had a wide-ranging discussion in March 2018 about the chilling scene in Run, Hide, Fight showing the professor locking the door from the outside and about the usefulness of improved locks for classroom doors. We also discussed an active-shooter training oriented to faculty classroom needs that would include a hands-on, participatory element missing from the current ad hoc training. He said that he had done this training successfully with a few other campus groups but had been reluctant to try it with faculty members (we have a reputation for being, well, difficult). I assured him that if we could make his training work with the union’s executive committee, union leaders could sell it to our peers. We agreed to schedule a date for the early summer.

Meanwhile, the executive committee suggested that I bring an additional union member to my meeting with the president and the provost. I brought with me Karen Miller, who had been the OU chapter president at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting and had made the first request for door locks to the university administration. Miller discussed the history of the conflict over door locks with the president and provost, and together we explained the effect of seeing Run, Hide, Fight and the safety concerns of some of our students. We talked about the possibility of offering training of the kind that the police chief had told me about. We also discussed the absence of useful door locks in classroom buildings, and Miller expressed her frustration that new buildings had been planned and built without addressing the problem of unsecured doors. Our administrative counterparts assured us that they took the problem very seriously. They were considering online training packages to “require” of members of the faculty. And as for the door locks: they would look into it.

Aw, Pucks!

In June, our union’s executive committee retreat included the hands-on active-shooter training with the police chief. As part of this training, participants work together to repel an armed intruder (played by a police computer technician) in the classroom using plastic balls. During our discussion with the chief, we asked what might be useful against an actual gun. The chief, who had been a youth hockey coach, suggested that a hockey puck would be helpful. Pucks were small but heavy, could be easily kept in backpacks and briefcases, and hurt like hell when they hit you. Additionally, they were not considered weapons and therefore didn’t run afoul of university ordinances. We all chuckled at the idea of arming teachers and students with hockey pucks but also followed the logic: with no door locks to prevent an intruder from coming in, having some way to fend off the attacker becomes a necessity, and a hockey puck made as much sense as anything else.

When the executive committee convened to discuss priorities for the coming year, classroom safety climbed to the top of the list and the contours of a campaign emerged. We wanted to make the training we had all just experienced available to the entire faculty. We decided to organize it ourselves, scheduling sessions by academic department to facilitate maximum coverage while also making our members as comfortable as possible. We also decided that it was time to stop using cost as an excuse for inaction. If it was, as we had been told, too expensive for the university to provide door locks, then we would raise the funds to provide some number of them ourselves. We decided to use OU’s All University Fund Drive (AUFD), a yearly campaign that provided matching funds for efforts to raise money for all kinds of university projects, including scholarships and infrastructure improvements.

And we would buy hockey pucks. We took seriously the police chief’s advice that the pucks would make a useful tool for fending off an attacker, while recognizing the absurdity of faculty members and students throwing galvanized rubber discs at armed lunatics. However, the absurdity was a consequence of a culture that had landed us in the position of having to consider such means, and we hoped it would prove an effective attention-getter for our fundraising efforts. In addition to being relatively cheap (less than a dollar each), hockey pucks could be imprinted with a customized message, which in our case would include the information needed to contribute to the fund drive and our organization’s name. The pucks would be distributed to the union’s eight hundred or so members. We also reached out to the leaders of the OU Student Congress (OUSC), believing that the support of the students would have an even greater effect on our fundraising efforts. The president and vice president of the OUSC embraced the idea, and we increased our order for hockey pucks to 2,500 so that we could give them to students as well.

Pucks Come to Hockey Town

In the fall I made public presentations on classroom safety to the OUSC and the Residence Halls Committee. I described the need for the locks, the plan for training faculty members so that they would be able to talk to students, and the use of the hockey pucks for both defense and fundraising. We also announced our intentions to the general membership along with our plans for publicizing our efforts. Students and faculty alike expressed skepticism, with many questioning the hockey puck as a symbol and tool. One of the persistent questions pertained to money: how much would it take to equip the entire campus with locks? We were never able to get a firm answer, but we did discover that outfitting the oldest dedicated classroom building would cost approximately $5,000. When the executive committee learned this number, we immediately voted to donate the sum to start the fund drive.

This donation became the lead for our first press release. We distributed the release to local print media and the Chronicle of Higher Education and were covered only by a reporter from the student paper and by a local daily, the Oakland Press. The latter article appeared on the front page of the paper with a picture of me at my desk with a key and an accompanying photo of my doorknob. Our union hadn’t generated this kind of press coverage in years, and the story was a balanced account of the issue and our efforts to improve campus safety. It also included a statement from our university’s chief operating officer suggesting that the university would pay for the door locks. However, when we followed up on those comments, he said that we should continue our fundraising because the money wasn’t in the budget.

By that time our imprinted hockey pucks had arrived on campus. I sent a second press release, with the headline, “Professors Train to Fight Armed Intruders with Hockey Pucks,” to local TV and radio stations as well as print outlets. One of the TV stations posted my press release, almost unchanged, to its website, and we quickly became something of a media sensation. In the next forty-eight hours, the university communications and marketing staff shuttled me to interviews with CNN, the Chronicle of Higher Education, ABC, and even a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show. Many outlets chose not to contact us and instead repackaged the story from other press sources, which led to some strange distortions: the university was handing out hockey pucks (well, no, it was the faculty union); we were selling hockey pucks to raise money (Detroiters are fond of calling our city Hockey Town, but, again, no). Then Trevor Noah made fun of us on The Daily Show, and we knew we had arrived.

Almost every story (except The Daily Show segment) made the point that our ultimate goal was to get locks on classroom doors—even as some lambasted us for supposedly advocating battles between AK-47s and hockey pucks. And a few weeks after the media maelstrom died down, that is what we got.

In January 2019, I received a call from the university’s vice president of advancement asking me to reallocate the union’s $5,000 contribution, since the door locks would be paid for entirely by the university administration. About two weeks after that, the entire project was completed, and today all of the classrooms at Oakland are equipped with easy-to-use locks that can secure our classrooms. In addition, as of February, roughly half of our union’s members had been trained by qualified police officers on responding to an active shooter. Most interesting, the chair of the Michigan House’s Subcommittee on Appropriations for Higher Education and Community Colleges contacted our union and asked if we could send her some hockey pucks. Apparently, the spectacle of faculty members and students fundraising to provide for basic necessities had signaled to the legislature that funding for higher education wasn’t quite meeting the needs of the people who work at and attend public colleges and universities in the state.

What Was That All About?                                                                                       

The story of the hockey puck blew up in a way that none of us could have anticipated. I had assumed that our press release would not be of interest to anyone beyond the local news media and higher education reporters. After all, the Run, Hide, Fight protocol was nothing unusual; government and university response plans often recommend throwing an object at an attacker as a last resort. My sister-in-law keeps cans of vegetables in her classroom for that very purpose, and a family friend brought excess paving stones from a recent house project to her class for the same reason. Such measures are not themselves ridiculous; they simply illustrate the terrible absurdity of the gun violence that confronts us.

But the puck struck a nerve. Perhaps it was suggestive of Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow and a puckish response to these horrific events. Perhaps it stuck in people’s minds because it rhymes with a certain four-letter word, a point that my undergraduates found incredibly pucking entertaining during the fall term. It may be, as Trevor Noah suggested, that we took two things that Americans don’t really care about—hockey and gun violence—and combined them in a weird way. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that our campaign sparked a conversation and still more grateful that it put locks on the doors of our classrooms. Our members are safer, our students are safer, and our campus is safer as a result.

What did our chapter learn in the process? If we had had more time, we could have trained more faculty members and better explained the use of the puck to students and others before the story hit the press. Most of the press coverage made the point that we wanted locks on the doors, but we were also sometimes the butt of a joke, professors battling armed intruders with hockey pucks. Predictably, a number of media outlets used the pucks to argue in favor of arming teachers—for some, there is no question that can’t be answered by increasing the number of guns. Our chapter’s experience also demonstrated the importance of having a media team. Talking to the press is tiring, and with a more coordinated strategy and more spokespeople we might have been able to advance our cause even further.

At the end of the day, though, we were able to win an important victory for our members and remind the public of the positive contributions that unions can make in the workplace. Our battle was over doors and locks, and we managed to unite various constituencies—the faculty, the students, the police, and others—in support of improving the safety of the campus. And it was important that we went outside of traditional channels to get this done. By engaging with the community in a creative way, we were able to change the narrative regarding our union. Too often, the media pays attention to faculty unions only when we are negotiating a contract, and the framing inevitably presents us as greedy, overeducated public employees willing to hold student education hostage for a few extra bucks. But here we were instead using our own resources to improve the workplace and make our students safer. It is the kind of thing that faculty members do all the time, but it took a hockey puck to make the point to a larger audience.

Thomas A. Discenna is professor of communication and president of the Oakland University AAUP chapter, one of the oldest collective bargaining chapters in the AAUP. He is the author, most recently, of Discourses of Denial: The Rhetoric of American Academic Labor. His email address is [email protected].