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.