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September 25, 2001
Thank you Bob, Mike. Good afternoon. I greatly appreciate this opportunity to join you this afternoon. I would be flattered to speak to Kiwanis in any circumstance, but in these disturbing and extraordinary times, it is a pleasure to join a group of women and men who look beyond themselves and seek to make life better for children and adults around the globe. The values represented by Kiwanis are exactly those that will sustain our nation in the aftermath of the awful day that has changed all our lives.

When Mike Milstein first called, he proposed that I speak about civic engagement and how our students at San Francisco State University are involved in community service. I wanted to talk as well about our efforts to prepare students to be not just good engineers, or teachers, or businesspeople, but fine, active citizens. I will have something to say about our civic engagement activities, but in the aftermath of September 11, Mike called again to suggest that I speak about how my university -- a community of some 30,000 students, faculty, and staff -- has dealt with our national tragedy. Actually, these two subjects -- civic engagement and responding to the attack on America -- are strongly connected. The ways that the university has responded -- and continues to respond -- to the terrorist attacks and their aftermath turns out to be one of the most powerful citizenship lessons our students could ever experience.

Please permit a proud president the opportunity to provide a quick view of San Francisco State University as it starts its 102nd year of service to the City and state. We are in many ways a microcosm of our Bay Area -- exceedingly diverse racially, ethnically, in age and in life experience; actively involved with our community through hundreds of classes, faculty research projects, and volunteerism. Our faculty are both dedicated teachers and fine researchers -- they bring in enough grants annually to place San Francisco State in the ranks of traditional "research" universities. I came to San Francisco State almost 14 years ago with the intent of making it the best public, urban, university in America, and I believe we are close to achieving that goal.

We have over 2000 international students and have long had visible and active organizations for Palestinian and Jewish students. More recently, a Muslim student group has come into being. The vast majority of our students are commuters, many with family roots in the Bay Area. But the university also includes some 1,500 resident students, and a great many of them are young people who are far from home, and away from home for the first time. Some of our students are parents of young children, and we have two children's centers on campus. We are a small city -- indeed we have more people than several towns in which I have lived.

The health and safety of our campus community weighed heavily upon me at 7:00 a.m. on September 11th as I gathered our emergency leadership group. Our first task as a university was to decide whether to remain open or to cancel classes and send non-critical employees home. This is always a tough decision to make. But it was taken out of our hands by the Governor and the chancellor of the California State University system, and we had to close. Next came getting that word out to 30,000 people immediately, both those currently on campus and those elsewhere in the community who might be on their way to campus.

From the outset, I have been reminded on a daily basis of the impact of communications technology. Twelve years ago, when our university had to cope with the immediate and longer-term aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, we had no Internet, no e-mail, no cell phones. But now these technologies became our best means of getting out fast, consistent messages. In the days since the attacks, e-mail has proved to be especially valuable. It has given us an effective means of reaching all members of the campus community and of hearing back from them. It can be a kind of virtual town hall, and in times such as this, a positive and even healing force, as members of the campus community communicate back and forth. All 30,000 of them have access to me through e-mail and many take advantage of it. I read -- and I answer -- all e-mails.

We have also made great use of the internet. We set up a special section on our home page, with the title "Campus Responds to National Tragedy." That section links to information about campus events related to the attacks, support services such as psychological counseling, ways to help the victims and their families, my messages to the campus, faculty experts on terrorism and the Middle East, and more. We continue to update and add to the site daily. Statistics collected by campus Computing Services show that people by the thousands are visiting it.

We expected to resume all classes the day after the attacks, and we did. But that Tuesday, I recognized that the real leadership challenges posed by this national cataclysm were just beginning. We needed to do much more than get information out to the campus. We needed to provide opportunities for our students to come together, to comfort one another, to set a tone and to establish the spirit of community that we would need to get through a terrible time. We had an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to reinforce and practice our highest values in responding to these terrible events.

Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center, we took two immediate steps. One was to plan a meeting that evening with our residence hall students. The other was to authorize a noontime gathering the next day in the visible center of campus, the Student Union plaza. We discussed how that event should be organized and who might speak at it. No one knew how volatile things might be. I imagine that today, exactly two weeks from that day of previously unimaginable horror, you can remember exactly the terror, anger, and grief that filled the airwaves -- and the nation's heart. Thinking of a potentially large event the very next day, we knew that while we needed to allow our campus community to speak, we had to do our utmost to maintain a tone that would draw us together, not allow anger to drive us apart. We needed to help the San Francisco State community come to grips with events that had horrified the world.

Those first few days of coping with the horrifying events of Sept. 11 made me very proud of San Francisco State University. At the first big university gathering -- my meeting with some 1200 residence hall students less than 12 hours after the attacks -- a spirit of mutual support and determination to avoid scapegoating punctuated the students' expressions of fear and bewilderment. One young man spoke about his fellow-student and friend, a Muslim, saying how terribly wrong it would be to judge him because of his background and religion. When 1200 students responded with resounding applause, I knew we were on the right track. I left that meeting uplifted, buoyed up by the wonderful demonstration of caring and concern our students were showing for each other. The message I heard from student after student was that they were determined to continue to see each other as friends, to look out for each other, and not to allow differences in background, ethnicity, or appearance to cause them to treat each other badly.

I wanted to carry that mood forward to the next day, to our noontime rally. There the gathering would include faculty and staff, and an even more diverse group of students, perhaps even members of the surrounding community. I think we have all been reminded in the last two weeks just how much words can reverberate at a time of crisis -- particularly words spoken by a community's leader, whether that leader is our nation's president, a devastated city's mayor -- or the president of a university. The San Francisco State community, our students in particular, deserved to hear me speak my values -- and articulate the spirit in which I hoped we would deal with this tragedy, on and off the campus.

As you can gather by now, I believe strongly that higher education has an ethical, as well as a traditionally "educational" mission. Imparting values central to our democracy is a tremendously important part of a university's work, ranking right up there with critical thinking skills and mastery of subject matter. This is an old view, one we in higher education lost for a while, but one to which we are now returning. We are recognizing that our students need a sense of community and social values, and that our democracy depends on the readiness of each new generation to take personal responsibility for the governance of society. This attitude, this sense of responsibility, has guided me and my campus colleagues in shaping San Francisco State's respon se to the events of September 11.

The campus' first opportunity to come together as a whole -- the noon rally the day after the attacks -- drew a far larger crowd than I had anticipated. Over the space of some four hours, hundreds of students, staff, and faculty stood remarkably silently -- except for their applause -- listening attentively as I, the head of our faculty, the president of our student government, and member after member of the campus community spoke briefly about the terrible events, our own feelings, and the importance of helping each other through this.

I began the meeting by saying: "We are here to start to heal. We are here to pledge that terrorism will not achieve its hideous aim -- that instead of driving us apart, it will draw us together. We will not let terrorism change the eyes with which we view each other, the hearts with which we understand each other, the respect with which we treat each other."

In a wonderful piece of timing, just 15 minutes before the rally began, I received a message from our Muslim Student Association, just in time to make it part of my remarks. "We at the Muslim Student Association express deep sympathy and pray for the victims in the New York World trade Center and Washington D.C. May the peace and blessing of God be with them." Later in the rally, a representative of the Muslim Association spoke tearfully, receiving strong applause for his heartfelt expression of sor row and horror. One indication of just how much our campus community needed this occasion to gather and speak: Some five hours later, after the formal event had ended, a small knot of students was still gathered in the plaza, speaking out urgently -- and raising their hands to get the floor. That spirit of community continues to this day, despite the horror at what happened and the fear of horrors yet to come.

A president may provide the immediately visible symbol of the campus response to a crisis, but helping San Francisco State deal with these horrific events has from the start involved a large and dedicated team, from our student affairs staff to our campus police chief to faculty leaders. To help faculty deal with the difficult discussions -- and strong emotions -- that might emerge in their classes, a group of our counseling and psychological services professionals and our dean of Human Relations produced a brief set of suggestions, guidelines, and referrals. They also wrote a similar document for supervisors, to help them help members of their staff who might be having difficulty in the attack's aftermath.

We recognized that some of our student groups might need particular reassurance and guidance at this time, and so Student Affairs professionals, together with the dean of Human Relations, set up meetings immediately with our Muslim, Jewish, and Palestinian student organizations, inviting them to invite others. We had not seen any signs of hostility or violence, but to forestall any possible physical disturbance and to maintain a campus sense of security, we re-advertised our longstanding campus escort service and increased the visible presence of campus police.

We held additional events of a healing nature. A candlelight vigil and march around campus, planned and carried out by our student government, and a quiet memorial service in the CampusMemorial Grove, held on the national day of prayer and remembrance, concluded a week in which we did our best to comfort each other and to maintain our loyalty and support for all members of our community.

Now that we have moved beyond the initial shock and grief, and the relatively uncomplicated moments of clinging together for comfort, the San Francisco State campus -- like the nation -- can expect to face even more difficult emotions: anger, a sense of hopelessness, even despair, as well as the likelihood of strong differences of opinion about the course our government pursues.

With that in mind, we are deliberately, and conspicuously, reinforcing throughout the campus a message for the future. The words we chose are those of the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, Bishop of Washington, spoken as she began the splendid service in the Washington National Cathedral memorializing the terrorist attack victims. "Love is stronger than hate," she reminded our nation. Those words, "Love is stronger than hate," now appear on campus banners, on the University's home page, on every issue of our weekly faculty-staff newsletter, and on my stationery. Soon, they will also hang from light poles on major streets leading to the campus. To me, this message sums up the spirit that will best sustain us in what may well be long, hard times to come.

In choosing this phrase, I was not sending a political message or suggesting a view of how our nation should seek to bring to justice those still living who bear responsibility for the events of Sept. 11, or how terrorism might be eradicated. I did want the phrase to remind them that while as individuals, we cannot change the world, we can make one part of it -- our immediate community -- better, one personal encounter at a time. I concluded by telling them that: "We have an absolute obligation to preserve this university as a safe and supportive community for all among us. Doing so is in itself a victory."

I have reason to hope that San Francisco State will not allow itself to be divided or to lose the sustaining sense of community that has been our initial response to the terrorist attacks. We appear to be ready to maintain the small world that is San Francisco State University as a model of what we would like the greater world to be. I know that this same thought is on the minds of many in our campus community, because it recurs in many of the e-mail messages I have received from faculty, staff, and students in recent days. They have sent quotations, copies of columns that have touched them, and have spoken in their own heartfelt words. Among the messages I have received are these:

  • "It's important that we save Americans, but also important that we save America meaning human lives, yes. But also that which ennobles them."
  • "The enemy is not Arab people or the Muslim religion. The enemy is fanaticism, extremism, intolerance, hate."
  • "May we all use this time to reflect and seek a deeper understanding of our world."
For my campus, the most important thing in the weeks and months ahead will be to ensure that we continue our conversation. Talking to each other, even -- in fact, especially -- when we disagree, will help us to practice and strengthen the skills of democracy -- the habits of thought and action our nation needs so urgently now.

And that brings me back to the subject I mentioned a few minutes ago -- a university's responsibility to help its students develop the skills -- and the desire -- to take an active part in civic life. Our nation cannot afford to lose the talents and energy of the young, from whose ranks we will draw our nation's leadership in years to come.

At San Francisco State, we're getting our students into the habit of civic involvement by building it into the curriculum. We have developed many courses -- more than 100 so far, in 41 different departments -- that include a community project in which students can apply what they are learning in the classroom, then bring their experience back to class for discussion. We have students who are going into housing projects to train children and adults how to use computers; who are teaching English to older immigrants and helping them prepare for their citizenship test; who are offering jazz workshops to kids in a tough neighborhood; who are helping to design low-income housing projects; and who are creating web pages for non-profit groups.

This approach, known as service learning, has proved to be an educational powerhouse. Studies have shown that students care more, learn more, and retain more when they are also doing this kind of hands-on work. And service learning has another major benefit: It helps us to show our students how effective, how creative, how powerful they can be -- when they choose to get involved.

You have no doubt read and heard much complaining from the news media about how uninvolved young people are these days, how many of them don't vote, how they are cynical and materialistic. I believe the picture is considerably more positive. Yes, there's a great deal of cynicism -- and not only among college students -- about politics and politicians. At the same time, national studies show us that more college and university students than ever before -- as many as 70% -- have done some volunteer work in the last year.

What we are doing, at San Francisco State and many other colleges and universities across the nation, is encouraging our students to take volunteerism one step further: to get involved in the organizations and civic structures that really shape change in our communities. We need people who will serve on committees in their children's schools, who will run for the school board, who will join -- and work hard in -- environmental groups, who will serve on the board of directors of a center for battered women, a homelessness project, a teen center for at-risk kids. We need people -- good people -- who will run for public office. And we're working to get students started on that path while they are with us.

If our students leave us prepared and eager to take an active role in the world around them, to involve themselves in their community, however they define it, to take personal responsibility for making some part of our society --- our global society -- a little fairer, healthier, more just, then we have fulfilled our civic mission well. And our ongoing response on campus to the terrorist attacks has become a part of that mission.

Thank you.

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Last modified February 20, 2002, by the Office of Public Affairs