A woman described by witnesses as “agitated” fired a bullet into the ceiling of the reception area in University President Nils Hasselmo’s office around 10 a.m. Tuesday.
No one was injured in the incident, and University Police have no suspects as they continue to search for the woman.
Hasselmo was in an executive council meeting with University provosts and chancellors when the woman entered the reception area of his office and demanded to see the president.
After being told she had to wait to see Hasselmo, the woman became upset and started yelling at the receptionist, said University Police Chief Joy Rikala.
Several people inside the office had entered the reception area when the woman pulled what University Police believe was a .38-caliber handgun out of her purse, and started waving the weapon around.
Rikala said the woman pointed the gun at the receptionist and Hasselmo’s secretary, Karen Benson. She then allegedly fired the gun into the ceiling and quickly left the room.
Members of the executive council heard the shouting and hurried Hasselmo to safety through a side door.
“This is an unusual incident,” Hasselmo said. “Nothing like this has happened before.”
Hasselmo heard the shots and caught a glimpse of the armed woman, he said. Neither Hasselmo nor his staff recognized the woman.
Mark Rotenberg, the University’s head attorney, was at the meeting and standing next to Hasselmo when the shot was fired.
“I think we need to address security in Morrill Hall right away,” he said. “The truth is that the president of this university behaves as if he is still in an academic setting, which is one of openness, easy access.”
University Police immediately provided personal security for Hasselmo and his family. They are under the protection of University Police until “the situation has been secured,” Rikala said.
Hasselmo said his main concern was for his staff after he saw the armed woman, and he praised them for their performance during the crisis.
“They acted in an extraordinary way: very calmly, very bravely. Obviously, this was a shattering experience for them.”
University Employee Assistance Programs, a University office that provides services for University staff, offered counseling to Hasselmo’s staff after the incident. The staff was given the rest of the day off after police questioned them.
Jim Infante, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, was at the meeting and also saw the woman.
Infante said he hurried into the hall to warn other University employees that might have been in danger.
Infante, who was 5 to 10 feet from the woman when he first saw her, said he could smell the gunpowder after the shot was fired.
Infante said his instinct was to try to talk to the woman and calm her down, but by the time he returned to the office, she had left.
University Police arrived at the office shortly after the shot was fired, Rikala said.
All four staff members in the office at the time of the incident pushed panic buttons after the woman started shouting, Rikala said. The buttons alert University Police, said University officials.
Police are looking for a woman who is approximately 40 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall and 140 pounds, with ash-colored shoulder-length hair curled slightly at the ends. She was wearing a dark skirt and jacket at the time of the shooting and carried the gun in a large brown handbag.
St. Paul police detained a suspect Tuesday afternoon and transferred her to University Police investigators for questioning. The woman was released later that day and is no longer a suspect, Rikala said.
Dwight Hobbes, a senior secretary for the office of the assistant vice president for Planning, said he heard the gun shot but did not see the suspect.
Hobbes said he then saw Hasselmo and other members of the executive council “rushing down the hall,” away from the president’s office.
Cindy Land, a senior secretary for Human Resources in Morrill Hall, said she first heard about the incident from someone who came into her office and told her to lock the door. Land said she immediately called the garage below Morrill Hall to tell them to look for the suspect.
Land said she called the garage because of a safety system worked out by employees in the building. The employees keep a list of staff members to call in emergencies. Originally started as a fire safety precaution, the list was helpful after the incident, she said.
Many people spoke of a need to increase security in Morrill Hall after the incident, but Hasselmo said the office of the University president will remain open.
“This is a public university and we have to conduct the people’s business,” he said.