Journal Archive > 2001 > October

University United

Tufts responds to terrorist attacks as a ‘learning community'

Students, faculty members and administrators agree that promoting a sense of security—physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually—will help the Tufts community cope with the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

And, says President Lawrence S. Bacow, "we must maintain our focus as a learning community. We must continue to study and learn from each other and try to support each other through these difficult times.

Charles Inouye, dean of the colleges, whose parents were among the Japanese Americans the government interned in response to Pearl Harbor, said at a teach-in following the September 11 attacks, "My greatest fear in all of this…is how we respond." © Kathleen Dooher

"It is difficult to predict what the future will hold; we are in uncharted territory," Bacow continued. "However, if we continue to support each other, to show compassion and respect, the strength of our community will help us through this period."

‘Refusing to be cowed'
The themes of academic focus and continuity were reflected the weekend after the attacks at the School of Medicine, where administrators decided to proceed with the annual White Coat ceremony, in which first-year students don their white doctor's coats, marking their entrance into the medical profession. (See "Rite of passage" in the BRIEFS section.)

"Refusing to be cowed, we decided not to cancel our 6th annual White Coat Ceremony" on September 15, Dean John T. Harrington wrote in the school's electronic newsletter. "The events of the week added special meaning and poignancy to the ceremony, highlighting the importance of becoming a physician or a firefighter or policeman…By the end of the program, all of us—the Class of '05, their parents and faculty—were on our feet, ready to move forward together."

Pulling together
The university responded in the days immediately following the attacks with a candlelight vigil and interfaith services that acknowledged the grief, fear and confusion felt by many. Since then, there also have been a series of forums, speakers and discussions designed to broaden understanding of the events and to prevent the type of ethnic fingerpointing that has emerged elsewhere.

"My experience has been of students pulling together in really remarkable ways and affirming each other," said the Rev. Patricia Kepler, interim university chaplain.

"The diversity that sometimes separates us has really been blurred during this tragedy…we come together more as human beings, rather than people who are African American, or white, or gay or straight or Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist," she said.

"It isn't that we don't bring those experiences with us, and they will again emerge, as they should, but at the moment, we're coming together as human beings," Kepler said. "We need to continue the dialogue. Our differences help us to understand the whole."

Provost Sol Gittleman says, fostering tolerance is "something that we at Tufts do very well." © Kathleen Dooher

'Safe as possible'
"The Tufts community has been very supportive, and I like that," said Tooba Cheema, J02, treasurer of Tufts' Muslim Students Association. While most Muslim students are now concerned about their personal safety in a way they were not before, "I've not heard about any incidents on campus," Cheema said in an interview two weeks after the attacks.

This is only to be expected of a university like Tufts, which is small enough to create a cohesive student body and which has cultivated a global outlook, said Sol Gittleman, senior vice president and provost.

While students at larger campuses may be able to "separate and demonize each other," that's not the case at Tufts, Gittleman said. Fostering tolerance is "something that we at Tufts do very well," he said.

Representatives of the Tufts Muslim group, which represents about 100 American and international students, said the university's support is helping them weather what has become a difficult time for Muslims nationwide.

"It's really important that the [faculty, staff and administration] know how we appreciate all the things they have done for us—sitting down in class, taking the time to talk to students individually," said Huma Mahmood, J04, vice president of the Muslim Students Association.

"The faculty and staff have made the campus feel as safe as possible for Muslim students," Mahmood said. She also praised a strongly worded e-mail Bacow sent university-wide on September 17: "Since the tragedy, I have also witnessed Tufts come together as a community," Bacow wrote. "We have shared our anxiety and fears and talked openly about topics that we often avoid—for example, the fragility of life. I hope this sense of closeness will not slip away."

Bacow's message continues: "…We must reach out to everyone and not allow anyone to be isolated during a time when each of us feels fragile and vulnerable."

‘Unjust and unfair'
On September 13, administrators from Arts & Sciences and the Fletcher School, along with the university chaplains, sponsored the first of several forums, or "teach-ins," on subjects related to the attacks.

Held on the balcony of Dewick/MacPhie Dining Hall, the topic was "Blaming Others: Demonizing/Dehumanizing," and the featured speakers had plenty to say about America's cultural tendency to stereotype and abuse minority groups, particularly during times of national crisis.

In particular, both Provost Gittleman and Charles Inouye, dean of the colleges and associate professor of Japanese, addressed America's response to Pearl Harbor and the ensuing demonization—and incarceration—of Japanese Americans.

"My greatest fear in all of this…is how we respond," said Inouye, whose parents were among those forced to forfeit their homes, businesses and freedom by the U.S. government during the war with Japan. "Because I know from experience that we're capable of responding in a way that is very unjust and unfair."

The students and others in the audience acknowledged the injustice of scapegoating particular groups—and turned much of their discussion to criticisms of media coverage of the events, which, some said, helped to inflame anti-Muslim and anti-Arab passions. (A separate forum on the role of the media in shaping public opinion was held on September 25.)

Other students focused on the need for greater global dialogue—both to resolve the current crisis and to understand how America and its policies are perceived by much of the world.