One of the most appealing aspects of being a professor is the ability to work and interact with young people. Faculty members can stay in touch with students by discovering their latest attitudes and beliefs on a host of subjects. This classroom marketplace of ideas was bountiful in late March after the unfortunate death of Gary DeVercelly.
In discussions I held with Rider students during the natural grieving process, consensus was that others were at fault. Very few made any mention of individual responsibility for the tragedy as they mourned the loss of a counterpart. Many students said the freshman was victimized by the current college drinking culture.
After teaching summer courses and staying close to the Rider community following the announcement of the ridiculous charges brought against Dean of Students Anthony Campbell and director of Greek life Ada Badgley, my classroom barometer shifted like the arrival of a humid August storm front.
As quickly as the Rider student body had absolved DeVercelly, the threat of legal action against fellow students and two highly respected and admired administrators stripped those feelings away. Once this story generated unwanted national attention and put their university in the crosshairs, the pool of voices I have listened to believe DeVercelly is far from a victim.
In the classroom and around campus I started to hear, “No one forced the bottle down his throat,” or “He could’ve said, ‘no’.”
An ideological evolution took place over the summer. Students now attribute greater responsibility to DeVercelly. Their anger has been posthumously transferred because the charges could have endangered Campbell’s and Badgley’s livelihood. Students saw the circumstances surrounding DeVercelly’s passing differently since they sensed his terrible death could continue to haunt the Rider community. As a result, the tidal wave of sympathy that we all encountered this past March has ebbed.
This process is often the case within our society; memories rarely remain stationary. In the aftermath of DeVercelly’s death, many students made very public displays of grief. For a generation raised in a 24-hour media society, who witnessed the Columbine shootings and the accidental death of Princess Diana on live television, they were almost patterned to act this way following a traumatic experience. Since their public grieving was so powerful and it was time to rally around a fellow student, they formed an opinion that DeVercelly himself could not be blamed.
A few months later, Mercer County prosecutor Joseph Bocchini announced that an investigative grand jury had concluded there was enough evidence against the two administrators to justify bringing charges. Perhaps it was the work of the grand jury or the passing of time, but sentiments today are different from a short time ago. While many college administrators may have gotten a message from these indictments, it appears that many college students don’t agree.
With the beginning of a new school year, it will be interesting to see whether there are any more changes in how the Rider community reacts to the untimely death of one of their own.
— Dr. A.J. Moore
Assistant Professor of Journalism