As the opening days of September arrived, the prevailing belief was that 2001-02 would be a momentous academic year. Administrators cited the upcoming climax of the yearlong tercentennial celebration, featuring a concert by the Counting Crows, a speech by former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, and the announcement of a major curricular review. Yale’s workers and graduate students spoke of the soon-to-expire union contracts and the potential for labor strife to divide the campus. And undergraduates, boasting more international students than ever before, praised a new financial aid plan that made it more affordable to come to Yale.
Then, on the first Tuesday of classes, all that was forgotten.
Everyone heard the stunning news in a different way, but the reaction was the same for all: shock, fear and pain. A generation that had known only peace and prosperity witnessed that morning the most horrific act of terrorism in American history, as terrorists killed thousands by flying hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
On Sept. 11, 2001 and in the following days, we saw Yale at its rawest and best. Yale President Richard Levin movingly addressed thousands at a vigil on Cross Campus the night of the terrorist attacks, and students of all backgrounds gathered as events unfolded. The images of that day, from the twin towers collapsing to President George W. Bush ’68 striding alone across the White House lawn to the hundreds of candles covering the Women’s Table, will stay emblazoned in our memories forever.
Slowly, life began to restart. As the days went by, Yale learned that nine of its alumni had paid the ultimate price, losing their lives as the World Trade Center collapsed before the world’s disbelieving eyes. Professors Paul Kennedy and Donald Kagan debated the meaning of the events at panels and in editorials, sparking a discussion on a level hard to find anywhere but at a place like Yale.
At October’s tercentennial celebration, Clinton — speaking from nearly the same spot on Cross Campus that Levin had at the vigil a month before — told thousands that everything would be all right, in a speech many said was the best they had heard in their lives.
Defining the priorities of the University became a key challenge in the coming months. Despite both the uncertainty of the post-Sept. 11 security environment and the departure of Strobe Talbott ’68 from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, the administration wisely chose to sharpen its focus on globalization at a time when it would have been easy to back off. Just months after Talbott announced his departure, Levin revealed that former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81 would come to relaunch the promising center.
And the potentially divisive labor negotiations, lurking in the background all year, ran smoothly, if slowly, throughout much of the spring. It now appears Commencement will come without new contracts, but the new tone promised by both sides has made a mutually beneficial solution seem possible.
Through it all, Yalies lived and worked in the long shadows of Sept. 11. The year had its high points — the basketball team had its best season in decades and the University took principled stances on early admissions and the Higher Education Act. There were disappointments too, as the Divinity School was stained by scandal and the Yale Corporation election turned ever more bitter and bizarre.
But in the end, the highs and lows of the year fade quietly into the background of that clear September morning. It was a year that was indeed momentous, but not in any of the ways people expected eight months ago. It was a year that tested us as Yalies and as Americans. We end the year prouder than ever to be both.