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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Consortium on Financing Higher Education Annual Meeting


New York City
November 29, 2001

Every thoughtful American, academic or otherwise, is rethinking assumptions in the wake of the unthinkable acts of September 11, and our colleges and universities share the privilege, the opportunities and the burden of facilitating much of this new thinking.

According to the narrative of national life articulated by the media, the terrorist attacks, the mysterious and murderous assault by anthrax, and the war in Afghanistan have changed our world.

But has the world, in fact, changed? In the Academy, we are slow to draw such conclusions. We need more time. We need distance. We need to let the clear light of objectivity illuminate these events of September 11 before we settle into any final analysis about its meaning. But we are asked -- we are expected -- to join in the collective process of making meaning, to shape the continuing narrative of public life. We either join that process now, engaging the deep resources of our colleges and universities, or we stay on the sidelines. Much is at stake and much is expected of institutions with such a concentration of wisdom.

Let me acknowledge immediately that our institutions have responded promptly and appropriately, often in moving ways to unfolding events. We have worked to make academic resources available to help students process this new reality. We also have endeavored to meet their emotional needs with sensitive and compassionate support and counseling. Because our colleges and universities are international in enrollment, we have worked to assure a safe haven for our foreign students. We have assessed the safety of our mailrooms and evaluated emergency response on our campuses. We have stockpiled flu vaccine and consulted with public health authorities.

All of these steps are necessary, but they are not sufficient. The next steps involve deep work that cuts at the core of our very identity and understanding of the nature of our mission. It is in this deep work that we can bring focus to the challenges we face for our academic life.

Such a moment is not without precedent. In a little more than a half-century, we have had to cope with such transforming events as the Second World War, the Cold War, Sputnik, Viet Nam and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all with substantial impact on the expectations for higher education and the resources provided to meet those expectations. The globalization of market capitalism and the revolution wrought by digital networking are impacting the content and delivery of curriculum.

So we're up to the task of coping with transforming events. I'd now like to suggest five different approaches for tackling this harder work.

The first approach is to acknowledge the critical role of all great American universities as an environment where we constantly live with competing tensions. Enlightenment universities were established with the idea that there is a unity of knowledge, and truth is there for human discovery. The last half-century of higher education has brought the development of multiple methodologies, schools of thought, and specialties, each with individual assumptions and inclinations. Today, the university's role is to also provide a home to a great multiplicity of "interpretive communities."

Now, more than ever it is vital that we provide a context for this plurality of communities. There is a tendency in challenging times to ignore this responsibility - to close out, to shut down some perspectives. Yet it is the central role of a scholarly community to provide a context where rival and competing perspectives can co-exist, in a dynamic tension, in dialectic, in dialogue.

We need to sustain a safe environment for such tensions, despite the occasional cost in public relations and the challenging moments such tensions create on campus. Providing a forum for the free expression of ideas is part of the moral leadership that our society expects of the university.

A second approach involves another university responsibility -- to build culture -- to build a "national" culture. When the modern university was born in 19th century Germany, it played an instrumental role in bolstering the German nation. In our country, higher education played a similar role in the decade after World War II. With the G.I. Bill, investments in Big Science, and efforts to capture and celebrate America's cultural history, higher education helped create and sustain the new idea of America as a global super-power.

But this aspect of our heritage - to build culture - links to another tension. Always close to that trend came the deep conviction within the Academy that higher education must also critique culture, questioning, challenging, and criticizing inadequate frameworks and received wisdom about our culture.

Yet perhaps we have moved into a new era, where our focus is better placed on building and critiquing 'trans-national' culture. We have a phrase from the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin over a doorway in our intercultural center -- "the age of nations has passed." This approach takes on a special meaning for we colleges and universities who consider ourselves 'international' schools.

A third approach suggests that we as institutions reconsider our assumptions and refocus some of the questions we have been wrestling with for some time now, in light of new data - the events of the past two and a half months.

Some topics that call for reexamination:

  • Language studies - as we know, foreign language enrollment has dropped by half since 1960, even as record numbers of students are enrolling in study abroad programs. Perhaps we need less focus on grammar and literature and greater attention to language skills relevant in business, foreign policy, environmental and public health arenas. It's time to consider again how we're teaching foreign languages and with what proficiency goals.

  • Area studies - an important set of questions has emerged over the past decade - how do we structure and organize our programs when big ideas like globalization and social networks seem to dwarf a focus on specific cultures?

  • How do rational choice theorists make sense of the irrational - of 15 men choosing to sacrifice their lives in the attacks on the targets of September 11? Are we seeing the limits of rational choice theory?

  • What is the possibility for inter-religious dialogue? My most surprising discovery since I became president in July came on September 11 when I realized how absolutely critical is our mandate for interfaith dialogue at the University.

    September 11 tells us that the need for dialogue among religious faiths is urgent. What role can we in the academy play in support of such dialogue even when the vocabulary for shaping religious discourse is somewhat alien to contemporary academic culture?

Fourth, with such a breadth and depth of curricular issues on the table, perhaps it is relevant to ask if we are confronting a 'turn.' In philosophy, in the past century, we had a logical-positivist turn, then a linguistic, in another part of Europe, a phenomenological turn, then an interpretive turn and a practice turn. We've taken enough turns to be dizzy. Every discipline has its own "turns" - significant, defining moments that we are often aware of only in retrospect. Such moments can be critical in the context of a discipline and in the context of an individual career. If we are alert for such moments, we can make a positive difference in the professional lives of our colleagues.

Once again, we have some experience with this phenomenon. We all have been aware of the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the assumptions of some of our colleagues. For some, the collapse of the Wall led to a fundamental re-questioning of their life's work. Those who lived the tensions and conflicts, those who engaged the implications of the fall were then able to emerge with vibrant new perspectives. Others suffered such disillusionment that they faced little hope of further creativity. Such moments matter deeply in the lives of the men and women on our campuses.

Many colleagues are now considering how the events of September 11 may dramatically change assumptions on which they have built much of their scholarship. That is a good thing.

Universities can encourage faculty to evaluate carefully whether those events represent a defining change so significant in scope as to validate fundamental rethinking of foundational assumptions. Universities validate that process by inviting faculty to reach across disciplinary boundaries to exchange ideas with their colleagues and with outside collaborators who question deeply what we have experienced and its effects on what we considered to be fundamental.

We also serve this creative process by encouraging faculty to take part in public dialogue. Their wisdom and insight concerning the issues and problems raised by the events of September 11th can provide much needed context for a public hungry for a deeper grasp of the reality we are experiencing.

Finally, there is a range of moral questions that cry out to be engaged. Are the categories and terms for conducting a "just war" relevant for a "war" on terrorism? Can our "rights talk" - the human rights culture that has emerged since the end of the second World War - respond to the challenges that arise from this moment? How broad a restriction on civil liberties is appropriate? What is our obligation to provide humanitarian relief to non-combatants impacted by the military response in Afghanistan? These are only a few of the questions that must be engaged and I can think of no place better than the Academy for this engagement.

Our universities will consider their academic response to the unfolding events of contemporary history, while facing the challenge to be relevant when social needs are great and with the need to defend the ideal of scholarship in times of extremis. In weighing both demands and opportunities, I leave you with the words of C.S. Lewis, in a sermon delivered in 1939 in Oxford: "...For that reason I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it."


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