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Adrian Walker

UMass Dartmouth a shaken campus

DARTMOUTH — Gazing out at the college quad, the new chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth wonders whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had watched his classmates as they gathered to mourn the three people he allegedly had helped murder the day before. A hastily organized vigil was attended by 300 faculty and students on April 16, after Tsarnaev had returned to campus.

“Of all the things that shock me, one of the things that really blows my mind is that he came back here,” Chancellor Divina Grossman said Friday. “He came back to our dorm. He came back to use the gym. He was among us. That is incomprehensible to me.”

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Grossman, who is completing her first year at the helm of the school, suddenly finds herself presiding over an institution in crisis. Only slowly did she become aware that “suspect number 2” was a student at the college, with all that would mean.

On the Friday that Boston and the surrounding area were locked down during the search for Tsarnaev, UMass Dartmouth was being evacuated. A carpool was organized to take 70 to 80 students with nowhere else to go to an improvised shelter at Dartmouth High School. With the cafeteria closed, meals were put together. Law enforcement helicopters began landing on the ground. Amid concerns that explosive devices could be hidden on campus, a college became a potential crime scene.

Yet the school rallied. “I saw innumerable acts of kindness,” Grossman said. “I think the silver lining here is that we saw our fundamental humanity emerge.”

Grossman said she prides herself on connecting with students, but Tsarnaev, who she said spurned most aspects of campus life, was unknown to her. “I’ve never met him,” she said. “I wouldn’t know him if he stood in front of me.”

The initial shock caused by Tsarnaev’s arrest and the subsequent chaos was just beginning to subside late last week when more bad news arrived. Three other current and former UMass Dartmouth students were arrested in connection with the bombings, charged with destroying evidence and lying to federal agents. Once again, the school was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight.

The arrests have prompted self-examination at the school, Grossman said. The students’ poor grades have raised questions about how they managed to stay in school at all. One of them, Dias Kadyrbayev, had flunked out.

“It’s clear to me that we need a task force,” she said. “We need to review all our policies and procedures. We have to look at everything we did. We owe it to the Commonwealth, we owe it to the people who died, and we owe it to the faculty and students here.”

Grossman said she also worries about the school’s hundreds of international and immigrant students, who might come under unfair scrutiny. The school is home to thousands of students, most of them from Southeastern Massachusetts, who are trying to make the most of their chance at a college education.

“They see the university as a beacon of opportunity,” she said. “It would be unfortunate if the message that got out was about the dastardly act of a few people.”

She comes by her concern for international and immigrant students naturally. Grossman grew up in the Philippines and came to America to pursue a graduate degree in nursing. The past two weeks have drawn on both her caretaker experience and her leadership skills as she juggles making students feel safe with the task of identifying pressing administrative issues.

The spring rituals of finals and commencement have been interrupted by deep soul-searching. A fat binder behind Grossman’s desk offers advice on leadership transition but nowhere does it mention how to cope with student-sponsored terrorism. Grossman can tick off a string of disasters she has endured, a list that includes earthquakes and typhoons. Yet one stands alone. “I’ve never been through anything like this,” she said.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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