Sustaining Our Collective Memory of September 11, 2001

Richard Ekman headshotAmericans of my parents’ generation remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, just as they recalled clearly the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. For my generation, the dates that Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot remain equally vivid, as does September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, DC. To this day, the news media each year diligently note the Pearl Harbor anniversary. Dr. King’s birthday has been declared a federal holiday. The dates when FDR and JFK died, however, are fading memories, an inevitable process as perspectives on what is significant change with the generations.

For many Americans—especially those in New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania—September 11 remains a somber day of memory. But for young Americans it can seem like distant history, barely known unless from a textbook.

For CIC staff members, the day’s horrors remain vivid. I had flown into Washington National Airport an hour before the first attack in New York and arrived at the CIC office to find colleagues staring at the television, aghast at the unfolding events. Once immediate safety concerns were alleviated, staff had to focus on what impact the terror attacks would have on CIC’s programs. With CIC’s annual Conversation between College and University Presidents and Foundation Officers scheduled to take place in New York just a week later, our first instinct was to announce that the event would go ahead as planned, that we would not let terrorists disrupt normal life. Indeed, we believed that our patriotic obligation was to sustain the activities of civil society. This plan was announced to CIC members, but a few days later the course was reversed when it became clear that commercial air travel would not resume for many weeks.

Another CIC event planned for a week later, the last in a series of 22 workshops that led to CIC’s 2002 Strategic Planning Initiative report, was scheduled for Lesley University in Massachusetts. Margaret McKenna, Lesley’s president for over two decades, said she hoped we could proceed because participating presidents would be driving from other parts of New England and they, too, wished to sustain normality to the extent possible. I had planned to fly, but took the train instead. The train was nearly empty during the seven-hour trip to Boston—except for the members of the U.S. Army who patrolled the corridors. When the train passed through New York City, the sight and smell of the smoke from the still-smoldering wreckage of the buildings were grim reminders.

CIC rescheduled the Foundation Conversation for the following spring, choosing not to skip a year, because we wanted to show solidarity with New York City at a time when many visitors were abandoning planned travel. (Many of the New York City-based leaders of foundations who had been regular participants in CIC’s annual event were helping their home city through special grants to local educational and cultural institutions. We believed that CIC should do its part.)

Now, 15 years later, in many ways, America has recovered. Elaborate security arrangements now are an accepted, if disliked, feature of air travel. Both Democrats and Republicans have been elected to the Presidency. The economy has been through both booms and busts. And more people than ever are enrolling in colleges and universities.

But in other ways, our country still feels the effects of September 11, 2001. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant feelings run strong. Bin Laden’s cause persists in the even more extreme form of ISIL. American higher education is on the defensive, accused of ideological bias, lack of intellectual rigor, and wasteful spending. Yet our colleges enroll a more diverse populace than ever before, the fields of study have expanded imaginatively beyond traditional disciplines, and advances in technology have stimulated new ways to deliver a college education.

Independent colleges and universities have helped strengthen post-9/11 America. The diversity of educational philosophies represented among the 650 members of CIC remains a distinctive advantage of American higher education, sustained despite pressure for more uniform approaches. As in earlier decades, many recent educational innovations began in CIC’s smaller, entrepreneurial institutions before adoption by larger state universities. With new calls for additional national expertise in STEM fields, leading research universities continue to play their important role. But in the national effort to expand the number of STEM professionals, it has been the smaller independent institutions that have proven to be by far the most efficient producers. In addition, as more students from first-generation, low-income, and minority backgrounds have enrolled in college, every comparison with the track records of state universities shows independent institutions are more successful in diversifying the country’s population of college graduates.

Even after 15 years, however, we do not fully understand the political, economic, and ideological aftermath of 9/11 and its lessons for our country and other nations. There is more to be done by colleges and high schools. As engines of democracy, free speech, and free enterprise, independent colleges have much to offer. CIC is helping through its faculty seminars on interfaith understanding (with Interfaith Youth Core) and topics in American history (with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History), mindful that the faculty play a large role in conveying to future generations the knowledge of what is important and why. It is little exaggeration that a secure future for America depends on a robust future for independent higher education—and that depends on clear remembrance of what has gone before.