Peterson responds to T theft

Photo by Eric Mansfield

Last week, the Technique ran an online opinion piece entitled “Why the T thief shouldn’t be suspended.” After reading it, I felt it was important that I give you some insights into my thoughts.

As someone who has spent a career in higher education, I have a deep respect and near reverence for the many wonderful college traditions that exist today. Some of the Georgia Tech traditions are among the best in the nation, ranging from Rat Caps and John Heisman to my personal favorite, George P. Burdell. These traditions greatly enrich the campus experience and help create bonds and memories that, for many, last a lifetime.

However, times change and traditions that compromise the safety of our community must be carefully examined and evaluated.

For example, imagine what would happen today if we required that all students have their hands and feet tied, then threw them into the deep end of the swimming pool and required them to stay there for 45 minutes, a.k.a. “drownproofing.” Would that have deterred you from coming to Tech?

In 1999, I was the associate vice chancellor for Engineering at Texas A&M University. That year the “Bonfire”—a greatly revered tradition at A&M—collapsed, killing 12 incredibly bright young students and injuring 27 more. What had been a joyous 90-year-old tradition turned into a devastating tragedy. In five days, I attended the funerals of the six engineering students who perished – something that I will never forget.

That same year, a Georgia Tech student died when she tried to climb onto one of the campus buildings as part of what was then a Georgia Tech “tradition.” Following that tragedy, President Wayne Clough wrote a letter to the students, plainly stating that anyone involved in attempting to steal the “T” will be subject to Institute penalties up to and including expulsion.

Like the presidents who have preceded me, I feel a personal responsibility for the safety and security of the Georgia Tech community, and in particular, for our students.

Simply put, I could not live with myself if a student fell and were injured or killed because of a desire to support what some thought to be a “tradition” here at Georgia Tech.

A number of years ago, the Tech Tower was equipped with fiber optic cables throughout the letters and an alarm system. The alarm system just happened to be disabled due to maintenance the night that the student “took the T.” The video monitoring system, however, was not disabled, which is what led to his apprehension. Contrary to popular belief, these systems—which are now fully operational—are not there simply to stop students from “stealing the T,” but rather to discourage anyone from attempting to steal it and face the possibility of being injured or worse.

In the fall of 2011, the Student Government Association sponsored a “Keep the ‘T’ in Tech” week. About that time, I received an email from George P. Burdell that included a statement I read to the students during one of the events that week. It said, “I understand getting into Tech is more difficult than ever, and that you have some of the world’s brightest students. Risking your life and risking your academic future is not bright, and it is not a tradition; it is insanity.”

George P. Burdell is a wise man doing amazing and innovative things throughout the world. He has been around for decades. I believe it is my responsibility to do everything I can to make sure that the rest of the talented young people here at Georgia Tech are as well.

As is our policy, the student involved in the recent theft of the “T” from the Tech Tower has been referred to the Office of Student Integrity and will go through the normal student judicial process for recommended sanctions.

In the meantime, I want to encourage you to make the most of your time at Tech and revel in the many great traditions that exist, but not at the risk of your safety or your life. We have another tradition here at Tech, and as president of this great institution, I look forward to shaking the hand of each and every one of you as you cross the stage at your graduation.