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How 9/11 Taught Universities to Overcome Their Discomfort With American Power

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.

Lawrence Summers is Charles W. Eliot university professor and president emeritus at Harvard University. This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.