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Ten Years After Sept. 11

New York-area higher ed leaders recall a tragic day
University Business, Sept 2011
Manhattan skyline

Every American can recall where they were on September 11, 2001 when hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in D.C., and a field in rural Pennsylvania. The day brought families, communities, and the nation together in mourning for, and later remembrance of, those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks. For administrators at New York City higher ed institutions, Sept. 11 brought the monumental task of organizing memorial services, setting up aid for the university and community population, and implementing emergency policy changes. Ten years later, administrators from Pace, Fordham, and Columbia share their recollections of the infamous day and their reflections on leading an institution through tragedy.

Rethinking September 11, 2001

David A. Caputo president of Pace from 2000 to 2007

David A. Caputo

Pace University's main New York City campus is four blocks from the World Trade Center site. On 9/11/2001, Pace had a program housed in the WTC, and several residence halls and leased apartments within a few blocks. I can best describe and reflect on the chaos and pain of 9/11 and the days that followed through a series of personal recollections: A senior vice president who without any regard for his personal safety left a midtown meeting of trustees and key staff members to oversee developments on campus, arriving just moments before the first tower fell…Numerous faculty members who left campus only after they were sure their students were leaving safely…My senior executive assistant volunteering to stay to help as we reached out to our remaining students…Members of the counseling staff walking the eighteen floors of our main downtown residence hall to offer help and reassurance to our students…An ash-covered and ghost-like New York fireman arriving to reassure his daughter that he was OK, and the tearful reunion when she realized he was safe…A call from my son over a thousand miles away, wanting to make sure I was OK and who somehow was able to reach me on a landline while chaos was happening everywhere…My concern for my wife and my other children, who were in other parts of the city.

The security directors who arranged for New York City Transit buses to help us transport our remaining residence hall students to our Westchester campus…The countless hours of work by those who helped move many of our administrative functions to that campus…The sinking feeling as I walked the campus late Tuesday and realized the extent of the devastation…Trying to understand how this event could have happened and what we could have done to be better prepared…The need to muster all the emotional and financial resources we could to meet the challenges we faced…The frequent personal prayers for strength and wisdom…The concern for all of the lives lost in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania…The enduring sadness on learning of the personal losses for so many more…Hearing from our staff members who were in their offices in one of the towers and who all managed to escape before it fell…The daily open meetings we held to answer the many questions (Is the lingering smoke toxic? Is it true there is radioactivity in the area? What are our plans in case of another attack?).

A handwritten thank you note from a national guardsman who spent over a week in our admissions area…The medical triage center located in our main building to deal with injuries…The New York City fire and police officers who, after hours of working on the debris pile, showered in our gymnasium building and joined us for meals in our cafeteria…The total disdain for those who used the tragedy for personal economic and political gain.

The university's collective will to meet Mayor Giuliani's request that we reopen the week after the attack…The concerned look our returning faculty, staff, and students had as we met them at the subway exits when we reopened…The decision to tell our students that their tuition for the fall semester would be refunded at any time if they could not deal with all that they had to deal with…Numerous improvisations and adaptations to the loss of electrical power, lowered water pressure, rampant rumors, and occasional despair on the part of the community…Seeing the twin beams of light for weeks afterwards from our midtown apartment…Walking deserted streets which used to be crowded and vibrant…The memorial services on each of our campuses and their meaning for so many…The seemingly endless and tragic funerals for all of those who lost their lives…The New York Times' vignettes of those who died and the great loss of talent and ability taken from us…Pace's recognition of those we lost with the first permanent memorials on our various campuses…The planning and implementing of new emergency procedures (redundancy in all that we do) based on what we had learned.

The overwhelming gratitude for the support from our Board of Trustees as we made numerous decisions, and their encouragement to do what was best for our faculty, staff, and students…The support from my colleagues and friends around the city, the country, and the world—the absolute belief in the goodness of our community and our individual efforts to help one another. I still have not been able to visit the memorial site. The memories are still too painful. Even 10 years later, I often find myself thinking about that day and the weeks, months, and years that followed. Pace was fortunate in many ways, but particularly that so many responded so heroically. I continue to try to understand what it all means and how it continues to affect so many decisions and individuals. I know that in the midst of unforgettable heartache and pain, there were myriads of individuals who responded so courageously and were willing to do all that they could for others. For that, I will be forever grateful.

David A. Caputo is currently President Emeritus and Professor of Political Science at Pace University.

9/11 and its Aftermath at Columbia

George Rupp, president of Columbia University from 1993 to 2002

Even though we were not directly in the neighborhood, all of us identified viscerally with the victims of the attack. We were honored to be Columbia University in the City of New York, and we could not but feel assaulted when so visible a symbol of our home as the twin towers was demolished. We felt connected to the target, and therefore considered ourselves under attack, too.

As we absorbed the fact that this attack was aimed very deliberately, we recognized that a highly visible university might also be a target. Our identification with the assault was therefore not only a symbolic one, but also as that of a potential physical victim. We were, as a result, in close contact on a continuing basis with the New York City Police Department and other enforcement agencies.

We were affected directly by the disaster on multiple fronts. What was no doubt the most powerful loss became known with certainty only over time: the large number of our recent alumni/ae, especially of the Business School, who were among the victims. In the days following 9/11, we held what at times seemed an unending series of candlelight services to honor our murdered colleagues.

More immediately, I convened a university-wide coordinating committee to marshal all of our resources in a concerted response. I continue to recall with pride how the university as a community pulled together and worked effectively to address the needs and anxieties across the campus. There was a strong sense of a common bond and a notable absence of the usual academic politics.

While the Columbia campus itself was not damaged, the disaster did very much affect our people. For example, we had hundreds of staff who could not get home because of closed bridges and tunnels, and thousands of students to feed when the usual supply routes were disrupted. Our gymnasium became a giant dormitory in which we set up cots and we scrambled on other fronts as well to meet basic needs, like addressing immediate requests for greatly expanded counseling services.

A special concern was reassuring relatives of students who were not certain about the geography of Manhattan. This need for reassurance was especially acute in the case of the families of international students. Alan Stone, then Columbia's vice president for public affairs, has an especially vivid memory that is illustrative, even if more dramatic than many similar accounts: "I took a call one day from a woman in Europe, frantic, as she could not reach her daughter, a grad student at Columbia," shares Stone. "I said, 'You have reached the Public Affairs office, I am not sure how I can help you.' She said 'Do you know this address, where she lives.' It was one of the brownstones along 115th [Street] near the [Hudson] river. I said 'Yes.' She said 'I will hold, please go look for her,' and she started to sob. I told her the call would cost her a fortune and she said 'My daughter is my fortune.'

"So I put the phone down and went to her building and described the girl to the doorman and asked if he had seen her. He said 'Yes, she just left with her boyfriend, she is totally fine, although he isn't right for her.' I said 'Are you sure she is OK,' he said 'Yes.' So I went back and told this to the mother who had held all this time, and she started shrieking with joy and thanked me and the call ended. I did not tell her the doorman did not like the boyfriend."

In the months and years after 9/11, Columbia people continued to be involved in responding to the tragedy: ongoing medical care, longer-term counseling for mourners and survivors, legal advice to the families of the victims and to the injured, consulting on economic development, and support for rebuilding the whole of the directly affected neighborhoods.

September 11, 2001 was indeed a traumatic day, and its aftermath continues. Ten years, later we can—and should—celebrate our collective response to a calamitous attack. I am pleased that we Columbians can count ourselves in the cohort of those who joined together in confronting this tragedy.

George Rupp now serves as president of the International Rescue Committee, an international relief and development organization.

That September Morning

Sharon P. Smith, Dean of the Schools of Business at Fordham University from 2001 to 2006

It was a brilliantly clear morning, unusually so for New York, the sky a radiant blue. Summer was over but fall had not yet begun. The first news was that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Most New Yorkers probably thought a small private plane went off course. The routine questions followed and soon all became surreal: Should classes go on? Of course, carry on as usual, that's the New York way. But nothing was as usual nor would it ever be again.

It is 10 years since that morning but the memories seem as clear as yesterday. I was dean of the Schools of Business at Fordham University, with campuses throughout the metro area. It was the beginning of a normal day that was supposed to have started with a meeting at the World Financial Center that was cancelled late the day before. While trying to fax a memo from my Bronx office to a board member/alumnus with an office in the World Trade Center (one of more than 2,600 who would die there that day), I was interrupted by phone calls from friends or relatives who had heard more news.

We listened to the coverage on the radio—which, since it was only audio, had its own special unreality—but in 2001, radio and TV were the only ready sources for continuous news coverage. We later watched the playback on TV of the towers coming down, looking like a disaster movie that could not possibly be real. I can still hear the fighter planes that had been scrambled after the attack flying directly overhead. Roadblocks prevented key administrators from my midtown office from entering Manhattan, so we organized a blood bank for the next day with a local hospital. Donors waited hours in line, but we soon discovered that little or no blood was needed because there were so few survivors. Nothing seemed real that day or for those that followed. It was a horrible dream from which there was no waking. Public transportation was limited and driving routes were restricted. There were ordinary decisions to be made: Should Executive MBA program classes be cancelled until airports reopened? When could regular classes be resumed since only emergency personnel could travel in or out of Manhattan? How could we house students and colleagues who could not get home? What should be done with future travel plans that needed to be secured now? Choices had to be made but they seemed unimportant as the terrible questions came quickly. Where were students, alumni, faculty, staff, colleagues, relatives, and friends who had business downtown, or lived there, or were due to fly out of Newark or Boston that morning? Had my admissions director, who lived in lower Manhattan, survived? Would there be another attack, and if so, where and when would it happen? With phone service—both cell and landline—damaged by the destruction at the World Trade Center, answers were not readily available.

Above all, I remember the silence. New Yorkers who pride themselves on their strength and resilience had been knocked down and went about in shock and silence. The New York skyline was clouded in dust and the smell of the destruction. And when the skyline appeared again, it was unrecognizable to those who lived with it every day. There were no towers and the nightmare was real: all those lives were cut short.
Friends and colleagues began to arrive with photos of the missing for whom they were searching, hoping those missing were disoriented, wandering. Those photos remained posted for months. When the victims began to be counted, how could we comfort the survivors and memorialize those who were gone?

With Fordham's close connections to the financial industry, where so many were lost, we organized a memorial in St. Paul's near campus as soon as flights were restored. The church overflowed. At that service and at countless services to follow, we would remember each person with prayer and love. We would keep faith with those whose lives had ended simply doing their jobs, whether they were security traders, investment bankers, firefighters, police, waiters, or waitresses, they were in a place the terrorists identified as a symbol of this nation, of its values, ambition, resilience, and energy. We would keep faith with them by doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, for in paraphrasing the immortal words of Lt. Roland B. Gittelsohn, ChC, USNR at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery, Iwo Jima–March 1945 and repeated at many memorials since then, "as long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them."

Sharon P. Smith is currently president of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. She is grateful for comments from S. Isola, L. Mounty, P. A. Smith, V. K. Smith, R. Stein, and M. Tierney.