Regaining our footing and bearings in a new world.
By Judith Rodin
Like the rest of the nation, the University of Pennsylvania global community lost a piece of itself on September 11. We are grieving the loss of friends, family members, colleagues, alumni, and thousands of other innocent human beings who perished in a wave of evil and destruction.
While we continue to mourn, we are fighting to regain our footing and bearings in a world that each day produces new headlines of war and bio-terrorism.
In the midst of our collective grief and apprehension, the Penn community has responded with a display of collective wisdom and compassion. We have recognized that, whatever our differences—over politics, religion, ideas, identity, or culture—for better or worse, we are all in this together. And we have stuck together to help one another heal, cope, learn, and prevail in a dramatically altered landscape.
Our first reaction to the tragic news and frightening images of September 11 was shock, confusion, anger, and horror. The worry was personal. Every one of us had friends, colleagues, or loved ones who worked in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; it would not be long before we knew who survived and who had not.
Immediately after the attacks, we took prudent measures to secure the safety of our students, and moved swiftly to meet their needs, worries, and concerns. We kept Houston Hall open around the clock to provide counseling and psychological services, telephones, food, news and information, and support. We then began organizing a series of prayer vigils, memorial services, symposia, and roundtable discussions to help us begin coming to terms spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually with the frightening magnitude of events.
That Tuesday, religious services took place all around campus, while hundreds of members of the Penn community attended a vigil on College Green Tuesday evening. Scores of our students stepped up to an open microphone to share their feelings, thoughts, and reactions, which they expressed with moving eloquence and passion.
On Wednesday, we held an interfaith memorial service in Irvine Auditorium that several thousand members of our Penn community attended. With music, colloquy, and silent prayer, we gave support to one another.
On Thursday, we held a faculty symposium on terrorism before a packed house in Irvine Auditorium. The symposium brought the collective wisdom and the differing perspectives of five extraordinary scholars to bear on a host of complex issues. (You can listen to the symposium or read the transcripts of the faculty presentations at the Almanac’s web site at www.upenn.edu/almanac/v48/n04/Terrorism.html.)
Watching our students, alumni, faculty, and staff reweave the fabric of Penn’s global community, I grew supremely confident in our ability to meet whatever personal, academic, and civic challenges lie ahead. We may not have anticipated a devastating terrorist attack on our shores, but we proved that we were more than prepared to use two of the greatest weapons in our arsenal: our enormous intellectual firepower, and our common humanity.
Like many great universities in America, Penn has a patriotic duty to crank up the production of knowledge that can strengthen our defenses, rebuild lower Manhattan, formulate antidotes to biological or chemical warfare, rejuvenate our economy, improve our schools, cure disease, invigorate civic discourse, perfect our diplomacy, guide our leaders, and help all of us climb to higher intellectual and moral ground.
It’s a tall order, but universities like Penn can meet it. We are perhaps the only places in the world where teachers and scholars from the sciences and humanities are free to mine the ore of hundreds of specialized fields, free to acquire the analytical perspective needed to think issues through, and free to draw conclusions that serve no agenda.
I have never loved my country and Penn more than I do now. Our community is standing together as one family, each of us teaching in or reaching out to help friends, colleagues, and students prevail through our national ordeal.
I have also seen us recover our capacity to create and enjoy expressions of hope and beauty.
A couple of weeks ago, on a crisp October afternoon, I visited the Penn-assisted, neighborhood public school, which recently opened its doors to our first classes of kindergartners and first-graders. Seeing these children learning in a warm, vibrant, and loving environment buoyed my spirits.
Strolling back to College Hall, I came upon a group of Penn students forming a circle at the corner of Locust Walk and 37th Street. These students, who came from different faiths, races, and backgrounds, broke out into beautiful, joyous, harmonious song. They belonged to Chord On Blues, one of Penn’s many outstanding a cappella groups, and, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they were singing real good for free.
They were, in essence, a microcosm of a Penn global community: rich in talent, full of compassion, and deeply committed to affirming the best of our common humanity. I am confident that in this crisis, Penn will distinguish itself as a beacon of reason, tolerance, mutual respect, and hope.