It is easy to sweep problems under the rug of a 2,000-acre campus.

It is easy to let the lamps dim and the plants grow toward the sky.

But fading lights and dense foliage can be an attractive blanket for dangerous people to hide under.

 …

For years, the University of Florida’s campus greenery has gone without proper maintenance. During that time, campus trees’ branches grew heavy and started to hang low. Shrubs overstepped their boundaries. The growth had gone unnoticed and unattended for years without issue.

But on Sept. 7, a knocked-out electrical grid cast complete darkness in the plant-saturated walkway between McCarty Halls B and C.

And shortly before 9 p.m. on that night, a 20-year-old woman was assaulted in that area. Her attacker crept up from behind and dragged her down. When she fought back, the man fled.

The university takes crime and threats against its students and faculty very seriously. But there are many ways to combat crime, and the path less lit is not always the right one.

UF Response

The McCarty Hall assault was the third to happen on campus over the course of two weeks early this fall. In response, the University of Florida Police Department immediately sprang to action, increasing nighttime patrol by at least 12 officers, expanding Student Nighttime Auxiliary Patrol (SNAP) hours and urging students to be safe, among other measures.

At the same time, UF officials enacted less advertised changes.

During a Sept. 15 UPD Campus Advisory meeting, the minutes show that those present — including Police Chief Linda Stump, UF Student Body President Cory Yeffet and Deputy General Counsel Amy Hass  —  discussed a knocked-out electrical grid that had gone unnoticed, rendering the lights between McCarty Halls B and C useless.

When asked if lighting played a part in the assault, Deputy Chief Darren Baxley simply responded by saying the area was dark due to the knocked-out grid, and the vegetation was overgrown.

Donna Winchester, a UF media relations employee who spoke for UF’s physical plant division through email, said after the McCarty assault a meeting was held — by whom she did not say — targeting areas of campus to be trimmed.

A week later, the pruning began.

Plant Trimming

UF faculty, police officers and supervisors noted that the university’s grounds have been overgrown for a long time.

Donna Bloomfield, UF’s lands and grounds supervisor, admitted that the physical plant neglected proper maintenance of shrubs for many years. During the campus-wide pruning, she said workers trimmed low-hanging branches to raise tree canopies to 10 feet off the ground, and some shrubs, which stood as tall as 6 feet, were scaled back to 2 feet.

“We should have never let them get to that point,” Bloomfield said.

Winchester, UF media relations specialist, said that shrubs, bushes and trees must be maintained for safety reasons. Doing this, she said, allows people to see their surroundings clearly. Also, lights are more effective with fewer obstacles. When tree canopy height increases, visibility does, too.

The physical plant division employs eight grounds crews and one tree crew to maintain the campus landscape. Winchester said that after the assaults, the physical plant division decided this number was sufficient to scale back the overgrown plants.

The nine crews cut, trimmed and pruned what should have been maintained all along, including McCarty Courtyard; the pond adjacent to Southwest 13th Street and Southwest Fourth Avenue; Museum Road across from Hume Hall; and the fenced-in area next to Norman Hall, according to Winchester’s emails.

Many other Florida universities employ a campus landscape architect, whose job is to address these issues before they get out of hand, said Tina Gurucharri, chair and associate professor of the Department of Landscape Architecture.

While historically UF has been and is the largest university in Florida by acreage, it does not employ a landscape architect. And according to the July minutes for a campus master plan steering committee meeting, the university no longer employs an arborist.

Gurucharri said UF could benefit from the experience of an official campus landscape architect.

A landscape architect oversees a school’s planting strategy, keeping in mind appealing aesthetics, lowermaintenance species and the height of adult plants, Gurucharri said. They also choose plants with safe features, such as low bushes that wouldn’t obscure a would-be attacker.

By contrast, UF is home to plants like viburnum and ligustrum, some of which can grow above human height and require constant maintenance.

“Someone needs to think in the long term,” Gurucharri said.

While historically UF has been and is the largest university in Florida by acreage, it does not employ a landscape architect. And according to the July minutes for a campus master plan steering committee meeting, the university no longer employs an arborist.

The school, which she added has many positive safety features, needs a better planting plan so that harsh trimming, like what took place after the sexual assaults, is less drastic.

“It’s pretty shocking,” she said about the pruning. “It’s pretty radical.”

Since the decision to pare down the overgrown foliage, areas on campus have become noticeably bare. Students began to notice the gradual absence.

Brett Wasik, a horticultural science senior, said he thought some areas, such as near McCarty Hall and Marston Science Library, were cut back too much.

“For safety it’s not bad,” he said. “But from an aesthetic standpoint, I was disappointed.”

Wasik said such a hard prune could over-stress plants when done so close to the cold, short winter days. New buds grow to replace the pruned leaves, and that process utilizes stored energy. If enough energy is depleted by this process, the plant could die or become susceptible to disease.

In its efforts to scale plants back, lands and grounds supervisor Donna Bloomfield also said that the physical plant division had to cut some plants that were not ready for pruning, including viburnum, ligustrum and azaleas.

Lighting

The knocked-out electrical grid and the darkness that followed was another key problem with the McCarty assault addressed in the Sept. 15 meeting. In fact, the physical plant division acknowledged that simply cutting away foliage is not the same as addressing safe lighting techniques.

“Trimming shrubs and tree canopies is considered grounds maintenance only and is not viewed as an alternative to adding more lighting in certain areas of campus,” Winchester wrote in an email.

While not an alternative, the decision to trim the foliage was a bargain. The physical plant division employed the same number of people it does for regular maintenance, having them simply cut away more than usual in the targeted areas.

Bob Miller, associate vice president of business affairs and primary coordinator of the Campus Lighting Committee, said that in the past five years there has not been any money available for widespread lighting projects.

Usually, the funds come from the construction allotment portion of the Capital Improvement Trust Fund, which is state money used for big construction projects like revamping the Reitz Union and Newell Hall. Whatever is left over goes toward improving lighting, Miller said.

But a lack of funds doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan. Miller said the UF College of Design, Construction and Planning has created a map that breaks the campus into zones of theoretical ideal lighting.

Some of those zones have been addressed in the past, and others have been skipped due to lack of funding, Miller said.

While not an alternative, the decision to trim the foliage was a bargain. The physical plant division employed the same number of people it does for regular maintenance, having them simply cut away more than usual in the targeted areas.

As for the evening of Sept. 7, part of UF’s electrical grid went out, shutting off the lights near McCarty. According to the Sept. 15 meeting minutes, Deputy Chief Baxley attributed it to nearby construction.

“The most serious problem is with maintenance,” Richard Schneider, UF professor emeritus of urban and regional planning, said. “There are thousands of lights here.”

In fact, UPD Chief Linda Stump said during the Sept. 15 meeting that UF “has massive amounts of lighting.” And she said, “the lights should be turned on in certain areas and during certain times,” instead of turning them off to save money.

She said more lights are not necessarily the answer. Utilizing the ones that already exist in a tactical way — such as making them brighter or keeping them on longer — could help.

Schneider, who specializes in crime prevention through environmental design said lighting is both a science and an art. Choosing the right lights for the right situation requires strategy and thought.

“The problem is, there are more lights that go out than people to fix them immediately,” Schneider said.

But physical plant crews cannot be on all areas of campus all the time, Schneider pointed out, and backup generators would be wildly expensive for the university.

“It’s a balance of cost and safety,” Schneider said. “Sometimes cost wins out. Sometimes safety wins out.”

To make up for what the physical plant crews can’t do, the Campus Lighting Committee, a volunteer-run group of faculty, students, student government members, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences employees and physical plant workers, surveys the campus one or two nights a year. It tries to spot what regular maintenance may overlook.

“The problem is, there are more lights that go out than people to fix them immediately,” Schneider said.

Bob Miller, the primary coordinator of the lighting committee, said he finds that the campus usually meets lighting standards.

The last survey was on a rainy night in Spring 2014. Besides a dim bulb or two, the committee did not find any glaring lighting issues. Miller said surveys like these are necessary for campus safety and security. Without additional parties checking something like lighting, things can go unnoticed.

“Like at home,” he said. “If you don’t sweep under the refrigerator for a while you see a lot of dust bunnies.”

Side Effects

Lillian Rozsa, a UF freshman and the Women’s Student Association’s “HollaBack” director, said she thinks trimming shrubbery is not as effective as adding lighting or more emergency blue lights.

“The whole rapist in the bushes stereotype really isn’t a thing,” she said.

She said bystander intervention, a way to help people recognize potentially abusive or dangerous situations, would be a better way to help combat violence.

“Assault is never the victim’s fault,” she said. “If we as a society, and as a campus, shift the focus from what the victim was doing to the harasser, that would make it [UF] a safer place.”

Efforts such as increasing plant maintenance, police presence and SNAP hours are geared toward reducing the risk of another attack, said Rita Lawrence, the interpersonal violence prevention coordinator at UF’s GatorWell.

By cutting plants and increasing visibility, the university is using risk reduction as a secondary method of preventing violent crimes, she said. This is different from primary prevention, she said, which aims to prevent crimes from ever occurring by digging into the root cause of violence.

“The university can do all sorts of things, but it’s up to the students to adopt it. No one can tell them what to do,” Lawrence said. “Until we know what the right thing is, we won’t know how to change.”