Newspaper: The Dickinsonian

Date: April 12, 1979

Article: College responds to Three Mile Island Nuke accident: Coping student exodus

Author: Jeffrey W. Blinn and Sarah L. Snyder


Imagine a student calling home the evening of April 1 - a week after spring vacation - to tell his mom and dad to "Come and get me, classes have been cancelled for the week." "Ah come on, did you really think I'd fall for that April Fool's joke," would laugh the parents.

But this year April Fools was no laughing matter as on April 1 President of the College Sam A. Banks, addressing an uneasy audience, announced the suspension of classes for the week of April 2. This reluctant decision to cancel classes came about because by that Sunday approximately 75 percent of the student population had evacuated campus, fearing the worst from the crippled Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant.

Typically, to those who stayed, though, the only fools were those who left and to those who left, the only fools were those who stayed. Banks, however, throughout the week, warned against these kinds of attitudes that could promote "needless" fragmentation of the community.

No danger

Based on the advice from the Cumberland County Office of Emergency Preparedness, Governor Dick Thornburgh and the nuclear physicists on the College faculty, Banks indicated in communiqué after communiqué that Carlisle was not in imminent danger and that there was no need for people to evacuate the College.

Throughout the administration attributed undue concern to "misleading, conflicting and sensationalized information disseminated by national media."

Nonetheless Banks, in conferring with his senior staff officers and faculty representatives on Sunday afternoon, realized that "the College couldn't hold regular classes of the standards Dickinson has under those circumstances." Despite administrative assurance, though, by Monday afternoon Dickinson was little more than a ghost college.

Perhaps some faculty captured students concerns at the by then traditional gathering (the first informational meeting was held Friday, March 30), when it was emphasized "If you have no ties to Carlisle, leave."

"Better safe than sorry," expressed one student evacuee, also reflected the sentiment of those students and faculty who left the area. Some students took advantage of the unscheduled break by heading south, while others returned home for lack of anything to do at the College.

Many uncertainties

Contributing to the decision to cancel classes was the College's uncertainty regarding faculty status. The College did not know if classes could be manned on Monday and, thus, could not promise inquiring parents that their children's classes would be held that week. Parental inquiries flooded the College switchboard, necessitating that it remain open round the clock throughout the weekend.

A United Telephone Company shift supervisor reported that "it's a mess." The supervisor explained that the Harrisburg trunk lines were in constant use since the accident at TMI Wednesday, March 28. "To handle all the calls we've had to extend shifts and call in extra personnel," she said.

To complicate matters further, the Office of Emergency Preparedness requested that the College be available as an evacuation site in the event such action be deemed necessary. "To hold classes at the same time the College would be used as an evacuation site would be impossible," said Banks. If used as a mass care center, the College would have housed in its public area 500 nursing home residents and 400 fire-fighting personnel.

Decision defended

According to Banks, there was unanimity among the group who made the decision to cancel classes for the week. He revealed that the group considered last Wednesday as a possible day to resume classes. This plan was dismissed because of the anticipated communication difficulties with students, plus five to seven day evacuation period as projected by Civil Defense experts.

Once the decision was made to cancel classes for the week, it became the objective of the administration to keep operations as "realistically normal" as possible. For example, sporting events and the Black Arts Festival went on as scheduled. Towards that end all support staff operations continued unfettered and alternative classroom instruction was adopted. (See related articles.)

Morale boosters

WDCV, in an effort to provide the College community with up-to-date news on the Three Mile Island situation, in accordance with Federal Communications Commission guidelines, had to stay on the air a minimum of eight hours a day.

According to Program Director Gail Gordens, students volunteered to man the empty show slots to keep the station operating. A skeleton staff manned the station, keeping it on air for 141 consecutive hours last week. (See related articles.)

Students also had a chance to boost morale on campus by participating in Professor Bob Cavenaugh's t-shirt contest. Students were invited to submit slogans about surviving Three Mile Island, the best of which were chosen to adorn shirts. All revenue collected from the silk-screening venture is to be given to a local charity. (See related articles.)

Towards Tuesday those who remained often noted the more relaxed atmosphere, especially those close to the decision-making process. By that time the population had dwindled to approximately 200 students.

All this plus the fellowship that Banks observed developing among students, faculty and administrators led him back to proclaim that this is "one of Dickinson's finest hours."

The second impact of the TMI will hit burnt-out students as they muddle their way through the rearranged reading and finals period. For some, then, April Fools will come in May.