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Another Las Vegas Tragedy

For most, December 6th, 2023, was a day of little–to–no note, full of the average mutterings and happenings of daily life: commuting, choring, planning for the next day, etc. For those who have ever attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it will be yet another day within our metropolitan community which will not be forgotten. And for a small few who were there, that day is stained with the permanence of pain and sorrow in the wake of unjustifiable violence.

A mass shooting at UNLV took place on December 6th, 2023, at approximately 11:45 am. A “67-year-old gunman who killed three faculty members and wounded a fourth in a roughly 10-minute rampage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had a list of targets at the school and more than 150 rounds of ammunition,” the AP said. His name was Anthony Polito, and had recently been denied a position as a UNLV faculty member. The AP noted he “had an adjunct faculty contract [at Roseman University of Health Sciences in Henderson] and taught two courses in the school’s Master of Business Administration program from October 2018 to June 2022.” CBS News also reported, “on the morning of the shooting, he visited a post office in Henderson, Nevada, and sent 22 letters to various university personnel across the country with no return address,” though the powder was determined to be “harmless” by police. Anthony Polito murdered the following people in cold blood: 

Professor Jerry Cha-Jan Chang, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Patricia Navarro Velez, Ph.D.

Associate Professor Naoko Takemaru, Ph. D.

A fourth professor was also critically injured by Polito’s actions. Polito eventually encountered police with his weapon brandished and was killed in front of  the infamous, awkwardly spaced steps which lead into Frank and Estella Beam Hall (BEH) of UNLV. It’s hard to grapple with the idea that a place I walked in and out of so often bore the burden of hosting the death of this individual and his last actions. 

Michael Mooney (War Games CEO and Co-Founder) and I both took Dr. Chang’s Project Management 1 class “IS 378”. Mooney took it in the fall of 2017, and I took it in the spring of 2018. For me, his class was on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:30pm to 3:45pm in BEH 104. Dr. Chang’s office was in BEH 323, and his office hours were “Mondays & Wednesdays 1:00 - - 2:15 pm, other times, by appointment.” I still have his syllabus, and all the notes and work I did in his class. It was very interesting to pull it all out, and recollect about his course.

Each semester, he would start by explaining how there is no Project Management 2, even though there is a Project Management 1. Essentially, the University of Nevada, Reno, already had a class titled “Project Management”, and since UNR and UNLV operate under the Nevada System of Higher Education, any class with the same title must follow the same curriculum. Dr. Chang told us that a “1” was added to UNLV’s project management class in order to make it distinct from UNR’s, even though the end goals of both classes were similar. This way, UNLV could control what was taught within its project management class without having to coordinate any curriculum with other universities. I’ll never forget the little mischievous smile he had when telling the story, as if such things were the real measures of victory. 

He loved little solutions to dumb problems like these; because it wasn’t about the fact that there were problems, or solutions, but rather how individuals have the tenacity to overcome problems with careful planning and communication, regardless of circumstances. And, unsurprisingly, upon reflection of his class and everything we learned, it seems his main objective was to give us a way to navigate through one of the silliest problems to exist within project management: Scope Creep. Simply put, Scope Creep is the growth of a project’s requirements over the course of the project’s life. Without proper planning and management, a creeping scope’s costs can have a devastating – if not fatal – impact on a project’s success.

As a collegiate course, our focus was mostly on quantitative analysis. If certain bottlenecks of a project require more resources than it has available, other parts of that project may need to operate with less in order to satiate that need. Pull funding from one place to another, allocate time from one area to another, or shift labor from one sector to another, and make the project stay on track efficiently. Figure out how to optimize the resources you have available to you so that increasing requirements do not become crippling to your progress. Simple enough when it's all numbers about some faraway company you have no stake in. But what about when things aren’t as quantitative, and you have a stake in everything that happens?

Well, fortunately and unfortunately enough, I experienced the instantiation of this question in one of our weekly War Games company meetings on December 7th, 2023. Long story short, I am responsible for creating all tasks within our task management software for any project we decide to take on. In this particular case, we were working on our 2023 Winter Sale project – going over all of the details and making sure everyone was on the same page and all tasks were built out correctly. Unfortunately, I was under the impression this project was a means of promoting only the sale, while another team member was under the impression that we were also promoting a “guaranteed in time for Christmas” date. I did not realize that there were two separate requirements within our team for this project until I had already started working through constructing our tasks. 

Boom. The scope of this project just crept out further than I had originally anticipated, and now I needed to go back to the beginning and reevaluate everything with this new requirement in mind. I know these two ideas sound very synergistic and easy to blend, but when you are halfway through all the work you thought was necessary to meet your responsibilities and you come to the realization that you need to change everything from the ground up due to a miscommunication, doing so can feel absolutely impossible. Moreover, you realize it isn’t even the work that feels the most taxing, but rather the time you will now have to spend fixing everything, combined with the feeling of lost time that could have been spent elsewhere. Yet, had I taken the time to plan and communicate more thoroughly with my teammate before I had started working, keeping in mind there might be more requirements to the project than I alone can see, then perhaps I would have avoided the costs a creeping scope can create.

Of course, I didn’t take a step back and realize, “this is Scope Creep. Projects can change, and therefore so can their requirements. It happens. It’s okay. Your teammates’ insights also matter, even if it costs everyone more time and energy to correct for their changes. Get ahead of everything and minimize costs by replanning and communicating.” I didn’t settle into patience and understanding with a situation that was making me incredibly frustrated and uncomfortable.  Rather, I huffed and puffed throughout the entire process, was short tempered, all-around unpleasant to work with, and likely mistreated everyone around me. Disgraceful behavior from someone who is supposed to be the company’s Chief Operations Officer, if you ask me. We got through it, and the project was relatively successful, but truly at what price? Sure, I could count up the number of tasks that had to be changed, and add up all the time spent redoing what could have been done once, but are those mensurable variables the only costs of the growing scope of this particular project?

If anything, these quantitative aspects are the least expensive parts of War Games’  2023 Winter Sale project. The real costs lay within the damaged ties between the individuals working together. Unfortunately, I can’t measure these qualitative variables. I’ll never be able to know just how much harm I have caused my own team’s success by something as simple as letting my frustrations about a misunderstanding within a project lead me to mistreat others. I think these were the real issues about Scope Creep that Dr. Chang was teaching us to navigate through. To be aware of the fact that there are always consequences beyond consequences. To understand that my attitude toward change can have just as dire a cost as a creeping scope itself. To know that the impact I place on others can make or break success itself. In other words: managing change brings about more change. It is your attitude within the situation, and your willingness to communicate about it, that determines which direction you take.

Unfortunately, neither Mooney nor I had the privilege of studying under any of the other professors who were killed by Polito. We did hear at the vigil held at UNLV that Dr. Navarro and Dr. Takemaru were both excellent educators and individuals, dedicated to the betterment of their students and themselves. I’m sure if all of their students look back on everything they were taught, they would find similar gems of wisdom. It is utterly heartbreaking they were all taken away before their time.

However, I think the greatest tragedy of all of this is that Polito will be remembered for what is likely the worst thing he’s ever done, rather than the best things he could have done; and these professors – UNLV’s professors . . . Our professors . . . My professors . . . – they’ll ultimately be remembered as victims of Polito, rather than the day-to-day heroes and life-changers that they were. Moreover, it’s hard to say how many students will now be deprived of the opportunity to learn from these marvelous educators, much less how much light has been taken away from those involved in each of their personal lives. How can anyone live with the fact that things went so much worse than they could have? While the answer to this question is important, I don’t think it’s what needs attention right now. 

We need to explore why we are having to ask these kinds of questions in the first place. Sadly, the truth of the matter is we are being made to ask these questions because we are failing, and we always have been. We are failing as a people, as peoples, and as individuals. I’ve heard from some others that it seems Pollito was a little off-putting and  difficult to be around. Now I’m no psychologist, and I desperately understand how it's hard to interact with someone you find uncomfortable, but the older I get, the more it seems awkwardness, abrasiveness, or a general sense of uncomfortability, usually stems from some form of trauma or abuse. Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet there has never been even one person to live who hasn’t been severely traumatized or abused at some point in their life. How can that shared experience not touch hearts and stir up sympathy for the other?

Obviously in this case, the answer might be, “Ohh. My heart isn’t touched when that individual starts to harm or mistreat others, or even engages in carrying out any injustice in general. There is no sympathy for the trauma or abuse of someone who would go out and do something so heinous as this!”

But clearly, the questions have not been answered, merely danced around. Fine, maybe this act is unforgivable and too much to sympathize with, but what about every other moment of this man’s life? Were those not times when he hadn’t done this thing, and therefore may have been worthy of sympathy and understanding? Or if not all, maybe even just one moment? Who’s to say? Maybe everyone around Polito did everything they could, reached out in all the right ways, offered themselves to help him, and he just couldn’t do the right thing because he was always a genuinely bad person. Or maybe, time and time again, Polito was failed by individuals in his life – including himself – which then became the failures of the groups he was immersed in, which then gradually grew to become the failures of society as a whole, and now here we stand in the aftermath.

I want to be clear that ultimately Polito failed all of us just as much, if not more, than any one person in his life – or all of us collectively – ever did. It is the responsibility of someone who needs help to accept help. And, again, I’m no behavioral studies expert, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that Polito needed someone’s help, and failed to get it.

So are there even any solutions? Forgive me for being a fatalist, but I don’t think there are. There will always be someone out there who needs help and won’t get it, be it for one reason or another. If not here, then in another city, or another state, or another country, or another galaxy far away from here. But, I do think we can minimize the number of individuals who end up alone and in need of help without receiving it. Sure, “funding” this and “make resources available” that, but we all know that eventually any institution created will become corrupt, or work in direct hindrance to its purported purposes. Truly, this is a grassroots effort, and always will be. It will always be up to the individuals within majorities and minorities to be warming and comforting to those who aren’t good at mixing in with status quos; and likewise, it will always be up to those individuals on the outsides of groups to accept and engage with those moments of attempted connection.

The truth is, as much as Anthony Polito is responsible for his actions, I am also responsible. I have shunned people I didn’t like or felt were too uncomfortable to be around. I have been silent in moments where I’ve witnessed another in need of help. And, I think I have even failed at accepting help when I have needed it, too. And I’d be willing to bet that you might  have, too. But, thankfully, with the help of heroes like Dr. Chang, we’ve been given tools to help affect change.

It might seem outrageously inappropriate, but the idea of Scope Creep is a tool that can be applied even here under these  dark and terrible circumstances to help guide better decision-making. The scope of this problem – bad things happening – begins and ends with the individual, even if problems permeate out into society from individuals. A person can only change the things they can influence, try as they might. We cannot get lost in efforts of “trying to change the world” or “making society a better place for all” in our quest to actually make the world better. If we allow the scope of this problem to creep, it will become a runaway train of progressively increasing costs that we will never catch. And it may end up costing us so dearly in the long run that society – Humanity – could fail completely.

Thanks to Dr. Chang, I can see that now. Thanks to Polito and people like myself, others are going to be deprived of Dr. Chang’s insights and expertise, and of Dr. Navarro’s and Dr. Takemaru’s insights and expertise as well. I do not like the idea that I am even remotely responsible for the murder of these bright people. I do not like the idea that the society I participate in helped facilitate the murder of these people. I do not like the idea that a single actor can cause so much destruction. I hate the circumstances that have brought about these changes. But, I have a hopeful attitude that each of us can do better. I have to hope that we can do better. If I don’t, all the ties between everyone working together on this project we call “society”  will eventually become damaged beyond repair. I hope you can see that now, too. I’m sorry you can no longer learn that first hand from Dr. Chang, Dr. Navarro, Dr. Takemaru, or even from who Anthony Polito could have been if we all hadn’t failed him, but I hope you can see that now, too.

I hope that the family, friends, and students of Dr. Chang, Dr. Navarro, Dr. Takemaru, the fourth professor injured in this incident, and Anthony Polito, find solace, peace, and healing, as well as the UNLV community. I hope that we can all feel safe again. And I believe that we can do better – that I can do better – so that maybe, one day, we won’t have to worry as much about things like this.



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