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So Much for the Ivory Tower

U of T reacts to the September 11 tragedy

The images will remain forever etched on our consciousness: two aircraft, transformed into instruments of unspeakable atrocity, strike the World Trade Center, shattering the ultimate symbol of America’s economic success.

The devastation of September 11 echoed throughout the Western world – even on the tranquil campuses of the University of Toronto. On that brilliant day, students and professors seemed in suspended animation, even as they scurried to begin the new school term. In my own office, we sat transfixed in front of the television set, unable to believe that the images we were seeing were real, rather than some 21st-century version of Orson Welles’ radio play The War of the Worlds.

The university could not afford stunned inaction, however. A September 11 Group, made up of 16 administrators from all three campuses, quickly assembled. Their immediate concern was the security and well-being of our students. The group reviewed emergency response procedures, circulated a memo on U of T’s policy on privacy rights and primed the university’s counselling services. At a remembrance service held September 14 at Hart House, more than 1,000 joined together as shock turned to grief.

The group’s other mandate was a call for tolerance. At all times, and especially in times of crisis, we must strive to ensure that not just the university, but society at large, behaves in a civilized fashion. We were determined that the people in the U of T community of the Muslim religion or Middle Eastern descent would not be victimized through the misdirected anger of a few, and we are proud to say that this has not happened. Indeed, our academic and student leaders alike came forward with strong public statements and organized cultural events such as Innis College’s film series “Understanding Islam.”

In the face of international crises, a university’s role is to bring reason and wisdom to bear on the human condition. I believe that our faculty members have a duty to share their wealth of knowledge and influence public debate, and they indeed take that duty seriously. For example, the Faculty of Law held a public conference featuring many of Canada’s leading experts to analyse the federal government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation. The proceedings were published within a week and had a real impact on the parliamentary debate of Bill C-36.

In keeping with our traditions of free speech, we cherish the belief that no voice should be silenced, but all must be willing to submit to reasoned debate. Reason devoid of empathy, however, is an abstract best left in the Ivory Tower. In the days that followed the calamity, we corresponded by e-mail and letter with as many of our alumni and alumnae in the United States as possible. I am overwhelmed by the hundreds of responses, and I thank all who replied for sharing their impassioned reactions and stories. Many knew people who died, and indeed some of us had close family friends among the victims. All were moved by the show of sympathy from friends abroad. “To see 100,000 Canadians on Parliament Hill today was something I never expected to see and will never forget,” wrote one alumnus from New York City, after viewing Ottawa’s national memorial service on TV.

Sadly, Arron Dack, a 1987 graduate in computer science and molecular biology, lost his life in the World Trade Center. We will not forget him, nor that horrific day.

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