Criticism of campus drills draws Internet ire

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota professor Heidi Czerwiec thought some people might respond to her recent letter to the Grand Forks Herald, but the backlash she experienced on blogs and social media was totally unexpected.

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota professor Heidi Czerwiec thought some people might respond to her recent letter to the Grand Forks Herald, but the backlash she experienced on blogs and social media was totally unexpected.

In her piece, which was published in the opinion section of the Herald earlier this week, Czerwiec recounted seeing what she thought were gumen and calling 911 only to be told the university's Army ROTC was doing outdoor drills.

When posted to the Herald's Facebook page, the letter was met with criticism of improperly using 911 and accusations of Czerwiec overreacting. As of Thursday it had been shared about 4,000 times.

Commenter Blair Dawes II said that Czerwiec should "take a Xanax and calm down," and Justin Denault wrote the letter was "literally the most tumblr, fainting couch, stupid thing I have ever read from someone using their actual name."

The audio of the 911 phone call revealed dispatchers hadn't been notified of ROTC drills that day, according to the operator who took Czerwiec's call.


"So irresponsible," Czerwiec said upon hearing the explanation.

"Usually they're pretty good about it, but apparently they forgot," the operator said.

In an interview, Czerwiec said she wrote the letter because she has friends at other college campuses who have or experienced a shooting or had their campuses locked down because of a gunman.

"I was not calling the police on ROTC, I was calling the police because I was told if you see something, say something, and I saw what appeared to be two gunmen on campus," she said.

She has received emails and calls of support, hate and some seeking answers, which Czerwiec said she has happily provided, though some have gone as far as calling for her resignation via social media.

Czerwiec now wishes she had been more clear about her intent to call 911 only when it isn't clearly part of a sanctioned drill.

"This is not and never has been about me versus ROTC, and so far all of the headlines have made it about that, and I think that's causing a lot of problems," Czerwiec said.

The controversy already has had an effect on the community.


Grand Forks city officials sent out a news release Wednesday about upcoming ROTC practice on the Greenway. City community relations officer Pete Haga said the announcement was made because of recent local controversy but also because of international events, noting the terror attacks in Brussels.

Haga said the city supports the group and usually just marks off practice on the Greenway with signs the day of the drills.

"I would think because of everything that has been going on it's always good to have the communication out there," he said.


Czerwiec said she didn't notice a March 3 campuswide memo until after the incident. It stated ROTC cadets would be conducting field exercises "this spring in and around the quad area" and included a longer farewell announcement for a faculty member.

"We receive hundreds of emails from the university every week, so I went back and looked for it and found that. But again, it didn't give any specific day, time, location, so it wasn't very helpful," Czerwiec said.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said ROTC communication with the campus community varies, adding at that time, it could have been better.


"She has the right to express herself and the ROTC is under no obligation to notify, but it certainly is the logical thing to do, but there's nothing to base any repercussions on," he said.

Czerwiec went so far as to leave an angry voicemail with the university ROTC office in the minutes following her call to 911 and subsequent phone call with a UND police officer.

"There is no reason in this day and age that you need to do these exercises in the middle of the quad," she said in part of the voicemail recording. "Do them somewhere else. I shouldn't have to work in a terrorized environment."

She said she regrets using profanity in the heat of the moment.

"But I do stand by the things I said in that message, which was that they had scared me unnecessarily and I didn't think it was a good idea for them to be doing the drills on campus while classes were going on," she said. "That I thought that was creating unnecessary stress and fear."


Grand Forks County Dispatch Director Becky Ault said Czerwiec's call was the only one the center received regarding the ROTC's presence on campus March 10 and she couldn't remember it ever happening before.

Subsequent emails between Czerwiec and ROTC Cmdr. Clarence Carroll III show Carroll explaining the role of ROTC and Czerwiec saying it was inappropriate they practiced in the middle of campus.

"Army ROTC is perhaps the best leadership course in the world at preparing young people for long-term success, both in and out of uniform," Carroll wrote. "My students on campus are a reflection of the less than 1 percent of our country's population who are either able or willing to serve and defend their country."

Czerwiec said in her letter she plans to continue calling 911 every time she sees people with weapons, despite being told the drills were cleared by authorities, because "It's not my job to decide whether people carrying guns at school are an actual threat. It's my job to teach and to get home to my family."

The Blaze, an online news site founded by conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck, also linked to the letter online, calling Czerwiec an "anti-gun professor." It was posted to a Reddit community page where it has been criticized and mocked. A Facebook page titled "The People v. Heidi Czerwiec" was created as well and posted her contact information and the state law regarding the misuse of 911 services.

Commenters posted outrage about her letter as well as attacks on her intelligence and insults about her appearance.

The creator of that page, Joe Bar, said in an email he lives in Texas but has a friend who is a UND student and wanted to bring more attention to what had happened. As of Thursday evening, the page had roughly 100 likes.

"Everyone is entitled to free speech and their own opinions in this great country, but when a person willingly chooses to hinder the education of others for a personal agenda, that crosses the line, and that is why others and I are calling for her immediate termination or resignation," Bar said. "If that alone is not a good cause to call for her termination, how about her vow to continuously commit a felony?"

Some on Twitter responded negatively, making her name into a hashtag.

"Get rid of that ignorant cow Heidi Czerwiec," @TheJasonKaas tweeted. "ROTC has a right to practice. If she has such a problem let her leave and not teach."

Czerwiec said she started receiving more emails and calls herself after the letter was picked up by blogs.

"I do get worried about that, which I think is the problem with blogs being treated as journalism because they're repeating this narrative they've already decided is true: that I'm a stupid liberal woman professor who hates the military and hates ROTC," she said.

Czerwiec said she has ignored those who have been outright rude or hateful, but she has responded to many with questions in an attempt to clarify her position and received positive feedback afterward.

"While this has been an interesting experience, I'm happy it started a dialogue about blog readers reconsidering what they read and perhaps more responsible drill planning on campus," she said.

Czerwiec provided a few such email exchanges, one of which begins with veteran Tom Wisdom calling her an "incredible idiot" and ends with him saying what he had read was misleading and he was merely protective of ROTC students given his military background.

"It is the responsibility of everyone at the school to ensure the safety of everyone at the school and I'm sure you did the right thing," he wrote.

Czerwiec teaches introduction to graduate level classes in literature, creative writing and poetry and said she would happily discuss the issue with her students, should they bring it up.

"In fact, I have some ROTC cadets in classes, and if they're concerned, I certainly hope they would talk to me about this," she said.

Read the original letter here:

What To Read Next
The Dickinson Police Department responded to numerous calls for service over the past week, and these are just a few highlights of the incidents that occurred.
Dissenting city commissioner objects to rebranding, citing unknown cost, lack of public input and historical connection with old logo.
“Let’s put this in the rearview mirror,” Sen. Michael Diedrich, a Rapid City Republican said.
A resolution looking to allow the legislature to consider work requirements on the newly expanded Medicaid program is one step closer to the 2024 ballot.