How 9/11 changed university life

September 2, 2011

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

September 11, 2001, was the day before classes were to start at Harvard College during my first year as Harvard president. I first heard of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center as I left a routine breakfast at the Faculty Club. Neither I nor anyone around me had full confidence about how to respond to such an event, one without precedent in our life experience. But, by midday, we had decided to hold a kind of service late that afternoon to commemorate what had happened, to try to provide reassurance to a scared community of young people.

It naturally fell to me, as president of the university, to deliver remarks. Those I drafted expressed shock at the magnitude of the tragedy and sympathy for the victims and their families. I promised the support of our community for the victims and those assisting them, but my draft also stressed that the tragedy we’d witnessed was quite unlike an earthquake or tornado: The attacks of September 11 were acts of malignant agency that rightly called forth outrage against the perpetrators. I wrote, too, of the imperative that we be intolerant of intolerance, and I suggested that we would best prevail by simply carrying on the university’s everyday, yet vitally important, work.

My draft remarks seemed to me appropriate and, even, anodyne. I was therefore quite surprised when some whose advice I sought, and some who heard my remarks as delivered, took strong exception to my suggestion that outrage against the 9/11 perpetrators was appropriate. Others objected to my use of the word “prevail.”

It was not just Harvard where such sentiments were strong. A year after September 11, I attended a meeting of the Association of American Universities along with other presidents of the nation’s leading research schools. On that occasion, a hapless young Bush administration staffer had come to address the new national security threats raised by 9/11. The reverential way this young staffer invoked “the president” grated on our ears, but he also raised some concerns that seemed reasonable to me: whether, for instance, it was appropriate to offer the full nuclear-engineering curriculum to students from terrorist states; or whether, in certain circumstances, it might be necessary for universities to cooperate with search warrants served on those suspected of representing terrorist threats. I confess I was nonplussed by the reactions of some of my fellow presidents—some of whom delivered glib lectures on academic freedom without so much as acknowledging the new security threats the nation faced. Did not universities, I wondered, have obligations as institutional citizens, responsibilities as well as privileges?

These responses to 9/11, at Harvard and elsewhere, spoke to the ambivalence about national security that developed at U.S. universities over the last 35 years of the twentieth century. It had begun with Vietnam, reviled not just as a costly and imprudent application of American power, but also as a profoundly immoral enterprise. In the Vietnam years, some American government officials could not visit universities without making security precautions. Students participating in ROTC at the time were wary of wearing their uniforms, lest they be assaulted verbally or even physically.

Even after the Vietnam war ended, ambivalence on campuses about American power and the use of force to defend it persisted. University communities were for the most part appalled when Ronald Reagan spoke of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” They were excited by proposals that the West freeze its nuclear weapons and dubious about the first Iraq war. Much of the opposition to the United States and its military was rhetorical, but there were concrete ways, too, in which America’s universities withdrew from engagement with national security concerns. Many insisted, for instance, that ROTC leave their campuses. Harvard refused to permit undergraduates doing their ROTC training at MIT to note their service in the Harvard yearbook. While university presidents are routinely called upon to be on hand to cheer athletic triumphs and to lend their presence to student cultural performances, no Harvard president spoke at a ROTC commissioning ceremony from 1969 until 2002. In the decade before 2001, the nation’s law schools had banded together to mandate severe restrictions for military recruiters on their campuses. The argument was that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy approved by multiple presidents and Congresses was as discriminatory as that upheld by all-white or all-male law firms and so warranted the same sanction against on-campus recruiting.

September 11 made such arguments seem less and less reasonable. Terrorists who killed American innocents in our most iconic city without provocation reintroduced the plausibility, the necessity, of greater moral clarity. In 2001, I argued that policy in every area must be debated vigorously, but respect for those who risk their lives for our freedom must be a basic value. Now, in 2011, we take such ideas for granted. Students urged that ROTC return to the Harvard campus. Applications to programs in public service have risen sharply. Interest in issues of international relations in general, and the Middle East in particular, has soared. And the number of students answering the military’s call has risen in kind.

Where are we today? Relative to any expectation of ten years ago, the greatest surprise—and blessing—is that there has been no significant terrorist incident on U.S. soil since 9/11. As George Orwell allegedly put it, “Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night, because rough men are prepared to do violence on their behalf.” As the United States seeks to build good will with the world—rather than to impose its seigniorial will—and as “don’t ask, don’t tell” recedes into history, U.S. universities must remember an important lesson: that, just as we are strong because we are free, we are also free because we are strong.

This essay is reprinted from the September 15 issue of The New Republic.


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“Without provocation”? United States policies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons in the Muslim world during the 1990s. Failure to acknowledge that has placed America into the same predicament of all past great military empires. No, we’re not an “exceptional” nation, especially in our arrogance.

Posted by mustafaspeaks | Report as abusive

What a complete propanganda tool.

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

Mr. Summers failed to recognize the unique function of universities – that they are places for students to acquire the skills of critical thinking and for scholars to challenge and create ideas. It follows that students and faculty members should be allowed to criticize any ideas/ideologies/paradigms/etc. For universities to succumb to any particular political ideology – such as the one advocated by Mr. Summers – amounts to admitting failure to the 911-terrorists.

Posted by theorem | Report as abusive

“Without provocation”? Constantly vetoing UN resolutions which would require Israel to stop occupying Palestinian lands, financially supporting Mubarak and the Saudi royal family and keeping them in power for decades against the wills of their peoples, supporting Saddam Hussein for a long time — all that equals “without provocation”? What are we to make of a Harvard academic who is that oblivious of recent history? Mr. Summers, can you not step outside of traditional American viewpoints and see things from other points of view?

Posted by Evidence | Report as abusive

“U.S. universities must remember an important lesson: that, just as we are strong because we are free, we are also free because we are strong.”

Fighting several billion dollar wars on borrowed money might make you seem strong, but if you do so, you are neither free nor strong.

It is a shame the lessons learned from Vietnam have been thrown overboard.

Posted by Vincent123 | Report as abusive

The logic behind Mr. summers’words is that losers are always in the wrong. It’s not needed to analyze the reason of being attacted by terrorists, just be strong enough to avoid attact.

Posted by fishingman | Report as abusive

Thank you for the thoughtful retrospective Mr Summers, I am in full agreement. A little less “Ivory Tower” and a lot more pragmatic realism would serve both future graduates and our country well.

The best way to insure competent government and a prudent moral military is for American colleges to provide both with reasonable, intelligent, well-rounded leaders. Please don’t let the relentless squawking of academic anarchists deter you from that mission.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

I don’t know why anyone is still listening to you, Mr. Summers. You are one of the reasons we are in this economic crises. Do “OTC Derivatives” sound familiar? Unfortunately, you probably won’t even read this, tucked away in your safe, ivory tower, writing articles of little to no relevance.

Posted by represent90 | Report as abusive

In a secondary school, the entire community of 14-18 year olds was glued all day in front of the searing images of 9/11, over and over having the messages of attack, threat, fear, doubt, anguish and death reinforced on their impressionable minds. This experience prepared them well for a decade of war and prejudice, patriotic vitriol, xenophobia and ignorance of their rights as citizens. Let’s try not to repeat it, this time around. Fat chance.

Posted by RRGreengrass | Report as abusive

As always, this failed university president and terrible economic advisor to the President posts, just to see his name in print, a most disturbing and thoughtless analysis of 911 and its impact upon universities.

What is far more impacting was his dismissal as President of Harvard. This has provided some hope that this and other leftist universities will return to their roots.

This guy is a has been and his comments cement him to his baggage of corrupt thinking.

Posted by deemerk | Report as abusive

What Mr “theorem” fails to recognize is that if students and faculty members are allowed to criticize any ideas/ideologies/paradigms/etc, that they also must be allowed to support any ideas/ideologies/paradigms/etc. It appears that our university faculty and student bodies have experienced a paradigm shift in the last decade resulting in increased support for the military. Although this may in fact be in line with the popular trends, this does not necessarily mean that they have succumbed to a national political ideology. If the unique function of universities is to provide students a place acquire the skills of critical thinking and for scholars to challenge and create ideas, then I would suggest they are fulfilling their purpose. Sorry if its not the direction you wanted to see things go.

Posted by MajorTom79 | Report as abusive

What you should have asked yourself Mr. Summers, is whether Harvard deserves president who has ‘high treason’in his curriculum?

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

Dear MajorTom79: Thank you for commenting on my comments, but I think that there are two logical errors in your comments.

First, it does not follow from allowing college students/faculty members to _criticize_ any ideas/ideologies/etc that they have to be allowed to _support_ any of such – reasonably rational people should be able to, as well as be trusted to, draw the distinction between thoughts and actions and between pointing out the pros and cons of an idea versus going out to support or oppose it. Furthermore, the ability to draw such distinctions should also be part of a college student’s learning experience.

Second, if the pro-war ideology have already gained its popularity among college students as you and Mr. Summers seem to be claiming, then why is extra intervention needed at all to promote the “intolerance to intolerance” rhetoric in colleges?

It is nice discussing with you anyway.

Posted by theorem | Report as abusive

This is such Bovine Scat propaganda I don’t know where to begin.

How did this guy get to be the president of Harvard?

I used to be so impressed…”Harvard,” it had an almost mystical quality.

Now I know better. It’s just more conformist rhetoric bovine scat seeking to reinforce established entitlement.

Good. I’m glad the so called Ivy Leagues are producing automatons.

I graduated from a State University and in the law firms and court rooms I’ve been in – all the Harvard and Yale trained lawyers are usually the dumbest ones in the room.

They are bereft of creativity and usually have NO common sense…and now I know why.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

Funny, but I thought Mr. Summers was too busy pushing for banking deregulation in early 2000s to be bothered by trivia like 9/11.

Posted by K-dub | Report as abusive