On August 1, 1966, at 11:30 a.m., Charles Whitman made his way to the observation deck at the top of the iconic Tower at The University of Texas and began shooting.
The Hogg Foundation’s offices were on the 24th floor of the Tower, five flights below where Whitman stood for approximately 90 minutes, firing at random people. About a dozen foundation staff members were present that day, and their recollections were published by the foundation in pamphlets and press releases.
They reported hearing Whitman’s shot that killed the receptionist at the observation deck; barricading themselves in their offices as they heard the “fusillade” of bullets rain down on passersby on campus and nearby Guadalupe Street; hearing screams and seeing victims fall; and frantically calling colleagues and loved ones.
“It was truly a nightmare at noon,” recalled one staff member. “Campus mental health never seemed more important."
Texas Governor John Connally concurred with that sentiment. He charged an 11-member committee, chaired by Hogg Foundation director Robert Sutherland, with investigating Whitman's motives and recommending actions that could be taken to prevent future tragedies.
The investigation uncovered a history of personal and family problems beneath the seemingly friendly façade that Whitman presented to many of his fellow students. About four months before the Tower shooting, in late March 1966, Whitman had visited the university health center, where he met with staff psychiatrist Maurice D. Heatly, who talked with him for about an hour.
Heatly’s notes from the session described Whitman’s distress over his parents’ ongoing separation and his own marital troubles. They mention his history of violent outbursts. His greatest frustration, however, stemmed from feelings of failure. Whitman desperately wanted to surpass his father’s achievements, yet worried that he had fallen behind his own peers, many of whom had finished college and embarked on careers.
As an illustration of his sometimes violent fantasies, during the session Whitman had described a vision of “going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.” Heatly did not believe Whitman was serious, however, because students often used the Tower as a prop for such statements but did not act on them. Heatly’s notes described Whitman as “an all-American boy” whose troubles could be managed through a series of one-on-one sessions. He dismissed Whitman with a recommendation to schedule a future appointment that Whitman never kept.
Like many others who had known Whitman, the psychiatrist had not believed that he was capable of mass violence.
As psychiatry professor and foundation consultant Ira Iscoe later told the Houston Chronicle:
“The whole thing is an enigma. It would be easier to understand if he had been one of the campus Beatniks, bearded, unkempt, and on scholastic probation, aimlessly protesting a variety of things and meandering along with no purpose in life… look at Whitman – clean, neat, crew cut, good grades and a purpose in life.”
The committee examined every facet of Whitman’s personal history, interviewing numerous individuals who had known him throughout his life, and reviewing medical and educational documents dating back to his early childhood. An autopsy would later uncover that Whitman had been taking Dexedrine, an amphetamine, although it could not determine for certain whether it had been in his system on the day of the shooting. (Whitman’s body was embalmed before the autopsy.) The autopsy also discovered the existence of a brain tumor that might have contributed to extreme mood swings including bouts of violent anger.
The committee viewed these medical results as inconclusive, however, and did not cite them as causes for Whitman’s actions. Instead, its report cited his “profound personal dissatisfaction” and the range of personal and family problems as precipitating factors. Ultimately, the committee concluded that it could not state definitively what had caused Charles Whitman to commit mass murder.
What the committee could do, however, was recommend prevention measures that might make future violence less likely. In this it was led by Sutherland, who was well acquainted with issues surrounding campus mental health. The year before the Tower shooting, the Hogg Foundation’s national advisory council had included campus mental health in its wide-ranging discussions of emerging areas of need in the implementation of the federal and state mental health laws.
Sutherland himself had characterized campus mental health as an “urgent and timely” topic due to the rapid growth of American public universities in the postwar era, the absence of adequate counseling services, and a “growing restlessness and intellectual foment among students," which had been most evident in the campus unrest at places such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan.
A few months before the Whitman incident, in fact, a request from the Board of Regents had led to the creation of a task force, chaired by Sutherland and including Iscoe, to recommend improvements to the university’s student counseling services.
At a July 20 meeting, less than two weeks before the Tower shooting, the task force had identified a range of services that would fall under the rubric of “counseling,” to include such things as academic advising, in-dormitory counseling services, an expanded new student orientation, religious counseling services, and peer group therapy sessions. The overall goal, as one regent put it, was to create “a program which will meet students where they are, which will be suitable for all students — not just those in trouble. We should not insist that a student has to be in difficulty to qualify for attention.”
The Tower shooting understandably lent a new urgency to this project, as the task force’s work essentially merged with that of the committee formed by Governor Connally. Although Sutherland chaired both committees, the driving force behind the push for more robust student counseling services came from Iscoe, a longtime ally of the Hogg Foundation.
A few weeks after the Tower shooting, Iscoe went on a fact-finding trip to his alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles, to view its student counseling center, which was a stand-alone facility with an independent budget.
He found that UCLA dedicated significantly more budgetary resources, had a staff that was better trained (all the way down to the front-desk staff), and had an exceptional intake counselor program.
Rather than assign each student an appointment for a regular 50-minute counseling session days or even weeks in the future, the intake counselor assessed each student briefly in a discussion that could last as long as 20 minutes. According to Iscoe, this practice allowed for clearer assessment of emergency cases that needed immediate attention, and also allowed the student to feel heard and thus be more likely to return for a scheduled appointment — an outcome that seemed especially relevant in light of Charles Whitman’s experience at the University of Texas’ student health center.
Iscoe’s report from UCLA decisively influenced the task force’s question framing. It was time to recognize that even “superior” students dropped out due to “adjustment” issues at a large, impersonal university. Sutherland summarized the problem against the historical sweep of mental health reform:
As psychiatry came of age nationally, it also entered the college scene. To begin with, the psychiatric specialist saw students only on referral from other doctors in the health service or from deans. He treated students with major problems of emotional disturbance and of deviant social behavior. Later on, more students in the general range of ‘the normal’ sought counseling on emotional problems. In many universities … the psychiatrist developed functions seemingly as much educational as medical. Such a point of view stressed preventive consultation with students and staff — a far broader approach than that of picking up the pieces after breakdown.
The task force’s preliminary recommendations, made in early September 1966, called for the development of “a broad health program for students and faculty,” a “mental health program for students and faculty” that would serve as “a fitting memorial” to the victims of the Tower shooting, and, the “development of an effective student counseling service” that was “personalized” and available to “each student in need at any time.”
By the end of the 1967 spring semester, the university had begun implementation, including the separation of the testing and counseling centers into distinct units, each with a director; an increase in the number of full-time counselors at the health center; the hiring of graduate student counselors for undergraduate dormitories; and, the development of a 24-hour crisis hotline.
Begun in July 1967, the telephone hotline fielded more than 10,000 student calls during the first academic year of operation. The service continued to grow during the next decade under Iscoe’s direction, ultimately developing into a comprehensive counseling service that “met students where they were.” As Iscoe later recalled:
Before telephone counseling, you had sort of traditional, ‘don’t bother us on Saturday afternoon,’ you know. The important thing was to involve faculty in the dormitories, the leaders ... and most important, to have 24-hour telephone service. It made a huge difference. So whatever the excuse for the call, it’s ‘I want to talk to somebody.’ And the other thing was that you had … laypeople, who had lived life but didn’t have degrees in the field both answering the phone and in the counseling center who you gave some training to. They were not professional anybody. But they could listen.
Iscoe quickly discovered that even the 24-hour telephone hotline left some room for improvement, particularly because of its close association with counseling and mental illness. In response, he partnered with a local coffee shop, the Methodist student center, and the Austin-Travis County Mental Health Association to develop The Listening Ear.
Operating during after-hours and overnight hours only, The Listening Ear offered “listening” services in a nonclinical setting with coffee, tea, and pastries. It pointedly described itself as “not a counseling center but rather a place where a person can share his frustrations, anxieties or fears and hopefully, thereby, discover that these feelings are not as frightening as he, in his own aloneness, had feared them to be.”
The program began in 1968 with a grant from the Hogg Foundation. Students who called the telephone hotline at the student counseling center might be referred to The Listening Ear, whose “mobile care-giving squad” could travel to a caller’s residence or any local place where they might be needed to “talk to a distressed person,” “listen sympathetically,” or make a referral to other services.
Small in scale, such interventions represented the brand of destigmatized, “positive mental health” that had been the byword of the mental hygiene movement at the start of the 20th century, and that the Hogg Foundation had promoted through its "circuit riding” lectures across Texas in the 1940s and ’50s.
Reflecting on the pace of change in 1967, foundation director Sutherland wondered: “Must we always go through the crude cycle of a ‘traumatic experience,’ like the Whitman case, to bring an awakening to obvious problems; then experience a sudden surge of interest and a remarkable unanimity of purpose; and then become slightly disillusioned when progress slows, interest wanes, and jurisdictional squabbles arise? Is such inching ahead through a series of peaks and valleys the nature of change? Or, is there really such a thing as a ‘breakthrough’ or as ‘steady progress’?”