The university sent an Alert Carolina message to the campus community shortly after 1 p.m. Monday. Students, faculty and staff sheltered in place inside classrooms, libraries, labs and dorms, turning out lights and barricading doors as police searched for the shooter. (File photo: Clayton Henkel)
UNC-Chapel Hill was in shock and mourning Tuesday following an on-campus shooting in which police say a graduate student killed the professor who acted as his academic advisor.
Tailei Qi, 34, made his first appearance in Orange County criminal court Tuesday, where he faces charges of 1st degree murder and possession of a firearm on educational property. Police say they have yet to locate the 9mm handgun with which they say Qi shot Zijie Yan, 38, a professor in the university’s Department of Applied Physical Sciences.
In a Tuesday afternoon press conference Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he and his leadership team have met with Yan’s family as well as students, faculty and staff who sheltered in place during the hours-long campus lockdown as police searched for Qi.
“He was a beloved colleague, mentor and a friend to so many on campus and a father to two young children,” Guskiewicz said of Yan.
The campus has cancelled classes through Wednesday, when it will ring the bell in the tower on campus at 1:02 p.m. in Yan’s memory.
Guskiewicz urged the campus community to make use of mental health resources on campus and praised students, faculty, staff and campus police for following the emergency protocols set up by the university in an active shooter scenario.
David Boliek, chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, echoed those sentiments. He was on campus for a special meeting of the board when the campus-wide alert went out, he told Newsline Tuesday, and sheltered in place in the chancellor’s office along with Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens for over three hours.
A series of alerts shut down the campus, urged students to shelter in place and sent out a photo of Qi as a person of interest, leading to his arrest about two-and-a-half hours after shots were reported in Caudill Labs, where the shooting took place. The UNC-Chapel Hill police and their Chief Brian James deserve credit for acting swiftly and decisively, Boliek said, preventing any further injuries and helping to be sure the suspect was taken into custody alive.
“I think by all accounts and my own personal observation, the emergency preparedness plan was executed as well as could be expected,” Boliek said. “I don’t think we could expect any more than what they did. You probably couldn’t say it was flawless — that would be unfair, because nothing is perfect. But I think they did as good a job as any public safety force could have done under those circumstances.”
Boliek said he went with the chancellor and provost to Caudill Labs once the lockdown was lifted and spoke with students and faculty there.
“The emotion was real and raw and it was moving,” Boliek said. “But the resilience in the voice and the demeanor of faculty, staff and students was also inspiring.”
The motive for the shooting isn’t yet clear, Boliek said, but moving forward his board will try to be sure professionals — from public safety to mental health — will have the resources to help prevent another shooting of this type and react effectively to future threats.
“From the point of view of a policy maker, you have to give the professionals the resources to do their jobs,” Boliek said. “So that will be our focus.”
In the year leading up to the shooting, Qi had taken to social media to vent feelings of loneliness, isolation and frustration, detailing conflicts and confrontations with his colleagues and PI, or principal investigator, in charge of managing his research.
Mental health is a major issue on all university and college campuses right now, Boliek said, and can only be addressed through making sure the community has the proper resources and that students make use of them.
“I wish I had some sweeping answer that would solve this,” Boliek said. “But this is a continuing issue not only across campuses but across our nation. How do we wrap our arms around people who need emotional support and to let them know that they’re a loved member of a community? It’s a constant sort of work in progress.”
A divide over causes, response to shooting
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, a number of elected officials offered thoughts and prayers for the campus community. Some argued that wasn’t nearly enough.
“The scenes out of UNC-Chapel Hill are heartbreaking, and something that no student, teacher, or parent should ever have to live through,” said U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) in a statement on Twitter. “Susan and I mourn the innocent life taken. We must all continue to work together to protect our schools, confront the nation’s mental health crisis, and keep firearms out of the wrong hands.”
In response, constituents pointed to the $4.4 million Tillis’ political campaigns have taken from the National Rifle Association, which opposes further gun regulation and has successfully lobbied to roll back even some regulations once supported by prominent Republicans.
State Rep. Chris Humphrey (R-Greene) also took to Twitter to share thoughts and prayers for Yan’s family. A graduate student who sheltered in place on campus after the shooting told him he should “get out of the way if you want to do anything worthwhile to stop gun violence and killing,” leading Humphrey to say his daughter was also in the campus lockdown and to call campus shootings “a mental health and woke society issue.”
Disturbingly, Monday’s shooting led to a near immediate wave of anti-Asian sentiment online after Qi’s photo was distributed as a person of interest. On social media and in comments on news websites, people repeatedly linked the killing with Qi’s origins in China and used racist language to condemn him and his homeland.
“Due to the identity of the alleged shooter, there has been a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric on social media platforms and other online forums,” said North Carolina Asian Americans Together in a statement Tuesday. “We urge everyone to reject this hatred and instead turn your attention to supporting the loved ones of ’s victim and the UNC-Chapel Hill community. If you experience anti-Asian racism, please feel free to share your experience with us at our bias reporting portal.”
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