A Campus Reacts, Reflects in Tragedy's Aftermath


Less than an hour after two hijacked jets hit the World Trade Towers, Duke student-affairs administrators were busy anticipating what sort of assistance students would need as they connected with friends and family. The needs would be substantial, they figured. New York is the home state of nearly 600 undergraduates—not to mention Duke’s graduate and professional students. Hundreds more are from Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., where the other planes went down.

Prayer vigil: a gathering for support and solace.

By ten in the morning on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks, the Office of Student Affairs had set up a support center in the West Union Building. It was primarily intended to aid students and their families, but numerous faculty and staff members also took advantage of its services.

Mental-health specialists from Counseling and Psychological Services were on hand to assist students, some of whom were stricken with grief. Donna Lisker, director of the Women’s Center at Duke, said, “We’ve taken a number of calls from students who were still waiting to hear from loved ones. Students also have had some anxiety about what the long-term implications are for themselves, their families, and the nation.”

Student Affairs encouraged student resident advisers and area coordinators to hold house meetings so individuals could come together as a residential community with friends and neighbors to support one another, said Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A. ’78, LL.M. ’93, assistant vice president of student affairs. Impromptu gatherings were organized in dorm common rooms. The night after the attacks, at Southgate dorm on East Campus, graduate student and area coordinator Eric Sapp was awakened by a resident adviser; the R.A. informed him that his freshman students were outside lighting candles for the victims of the tragedy.

“I opened the door to see almost every one of my 140 freshmen sitting in a circle in our parking lot, hands clasped together, heads bowed, praying in the soft light of flickering candles,” Sapp told Duke News Service. “I joined the group and, after a few minutes, heard the most beautiful sound, and something I will never forget—different people in the group had begun humming ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”

On September 12, at an extraordinary vigil held on Chapel Quad—for which classes had been canceled—speaker after speaker prayed for the victims, embraced diversity, and called for unity. Duke Chapel’s bell rang twelve times, and the University Chorale and Durham Choral Society sang “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Members of the religious-life staff and representatives of the student body and faculty then came together on a black-draped stage set up on the Chapel steps.

Because of the wider circumstances, several university officials had to be absent. President Nannerl O. Keohane had been in New York on university business, and would return by train later that day. Provost Peter Lange was stranded in California. And Dean of Arts and Sciences William Chafe had landed in Chicago about a half-hour after the first airliner crashed into the World Trade Center; after a long wait on the tarmac, he and some colleagues managed to secure a rental car and drove all night back to campus.

An estimated 2,500 students, faculty, and staff members gathered for the vigil. True Muslims share the shock, sadness, and outrage that washed across the campus, the country, and the globe, Iman Abdul-hafeez Waheed, the religious adviser for Muslim students on campus, assured the crowd. “Our religion, el-Islam, is a religion of peace. This is the fundamental belief in el-Islam,” he said.

Now is the time to focus on the commonalities linking all people, not the differences, said Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer, assistant director of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. “We are all children of Adam,” he said, no matter our race, country of origin, or religion. “This is a time to remember the teaching of the Torah: ‘How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.’ Senseless terror teaches us that all humanity are one.” Seltzer added, “I hope you will join me in wishing the Islamic community at Duke safety and peace,” eliciting the vigil’s first round of applause.

While the tragic events dominated numerous class discussions, they quickly became the subject of scholarly focus on campus. On the afternoon of September 11, the Sanford Institute of Public Policy organized an “open forum” featuring several faculty experts. Sanford Institute director Bruce Jentleson and others stressed the need to react not out of passion but, rather, to wait until more information is available before calling for a response.

Frederick Mayer, associate professor of public policy, said one of the traumatic lessons of the attacks was that “In many quarters of the world, people have come to believe, wrongly, I think, that the United States is an evil force.” Richard Stubbing, professor of the practice emeritus at the Sanford Institute, suggested that the events showed that a national missile defense would be ineffectual against the most likely threats. They also showed, he said, that as an open nation, “we are a vulnerable nation.”

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