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December 2001

An Integrated City University Responds to the WTC Crisis

Bold, High-Tech TV Magazine Invites ěStudy with the Bestî
Chancellor Goldstein Outlines University-wide Response to WTC Attack
New York City Past in Full Array At Inaugural History Festival
CUNY Community Colleges: Vital to City Economy
Arthur Miller Drops Back In for Finley Award at CCNY Dinner
CUNY Archaeologists Receive Vikings Grant
CUNY Faculty Experts Join Collaboration on World Trade Center Future
Rothbard to Lead Research Foundation
Asthma Initiative at BCC Registers Major Success
Jamaica Bay (Not World) To Be CUNYís Oyster
York College Grad Makes Naval History
Managing the 9/11 Crisis at BMCC
Hunter College Cartographers Aid Workers at Ground Zero
CCNYís Rosenberg/Humphrey Interns Continue Public Service Tradition
City Tech Prof Sheds New Light on Titanic
New Device for Medical Miagnonis at CCNY
Mina Rees, Pioneering Military Scientist
Annual Perspectives Nears 25th Anniversary
University to HIV Children: ěToys (and Lots Else) Are Usî
 
 

Managing the 9/11 Crisis at BMCC

On Nov. 2 BMCC President Antonio Pérez spoke on the impact of the World Trade Center attack on his campus at a conference on Entrepreneurship in Higher Education at Harvard University. Excerpts from that speech are offered here.

Fiterman Building
The Fiterman Building, ravaged when WTC #7 collapsed.

September 11. . .
Many members of our college community witnessed the attack and the collapsing buildings firsthand. Many were walking to the College when the planes flew right over their heads. Some of our students, faculty, and staff had just taken the subway or the PATH train to the World Trade Center when the planes hit, so they were literally escaping a towering inferno of flame and smoke, spewing shrapnel, steel, and glass debris into the street for blocks. One of our deans arrived at her office totally covered with debris and shrapnel.

Some of our students and employees actually witnessed the planes crashing into the towers, saw them burst into flames and later collapse. Some saw desperate, trapped victims jumping to their death. We saw workers running north and firefighters and police officers literally buried alive when the towers collapsed. We witnessed the rubble up close«and in it people"s personal effects, office equipment and even body parts, strewn over blocks and blocks of downtown Manhattan. Nor were we immune from human loss: seven BMCC students died in the attack. Five of them worked in the WTC and never made it out. Two were among rescue workers killed.

In my office alone, my executive assistant lost a close friend, and one of my staff members lost her cousin and two friends. In the office next door, my dean of development, who lives in Battery Park City, couldn't return home for over three weeks, and a secretary lost her sister.

A Campus in Turmoil. . .
But we were not only emotionally traumatized; the crisis was also an up-close, personal, and downright physical assault on the BMCC campus. We lost power, water, and phones. We were sealed off from the rest of the City by the authorities. You could not get to our campus, period.

But at least our main campus was still intact. That"s more than I can say for Fiterman Hall, one of our buildings a couple of blocks away. Fiterman Hall stood right next to 7 World Trade Center; when that building fell, it fell into Fiterman Hall, only recently renovated to the tune of $64 million dollars. Our Continuing Education division was set to move into Fiterman on September 15. Instead, we lost desks, furniture, computers, carpeting we had just paid the bills for. Files, student records—you name it, and we lost it. We also lost 41 classrooms in addition to lab space, offices, and the TeleMedia Accelerator, which had opened last fall.

President Perez
President Pérez on his cell phone, with rescue workers on the BMCC campus.

The Spirit of Partnership...
When I began preparing my remarks for this conference, BMCC stood in the shadows of the fourth tallest building in the world. Students sought us out not only for the high quality of instruction we offered, but so that they could ěstudy where the jobs are,î in a safe and exciting environment. Strategically, our location in the heart of the financial district was one of our great strength—a real partnership.

The weeks since September 11 have taught us at BMCC what it really means to be a partner to the community. In response to the crisis, we offered our campus to the rescue and recovery effort. Instead of students, our college housed the U.S. Army, the Port Authority Police Department, the Fire Department, emergency medical units, the Red Cross, FEMA, and other rescue workers.

What did it look like for those first three weeks? There were army jeeps outside our college. There were cartons and cartons and cartons of bottled water, potato chips, apples, and other food and supplies outside every one of our entrances. Flags draped over a wall on West Street added touches of color«the American flag, the U.S. Army flag, the Port Authority flag, the Fire Department flag, and of course the BMCC banner.

The halls outside the gymnasium were lined with gym mats, topped with blankets and pillows for officers to sleep on between shifts at Ground Zero. One whole wall of the gym was lined with supplies these officers needed for their rescue work: gloves, masks, socks, rain ponchos, and much, much more. Another wall of the gym was lined with tables full of bottled water, soft drinks, snacks, cookies, fruit, and hot meals. People sat quietly on the bleachers to rest, sometimes to sleep.

Outside, in the basketball court and tennis court next to the college, the Fire Department set up shop with eye washing stations and hand washing stations and special Fire Department tents. An entire company slept in our theater. The stage was piled with countless additional cartons of clothing, blankets, and supplies.

Right downstairs from the theater, the medical unit set up emergency medical tents right next to the jungle gym for the kids in our daycare center. The hallway nearby was lined with so many cartons of donated medical supplies you could barely move. A crew of BMCC workers worked virtually around the clock to make sure that our college remained a clean, welcoming, and secure environment.
The spirit of partnership brought us help, too. Our dean of development used her contacts with Verizon executives to have 20 additional phone lines installed, on a temporary basis, at our command center. Perhaps most important, these lines made it possible for us to call each of our 17,000 students during the weekend of September 21st to let them know that we would be opening on October 1.

This was accomplished only because administrators and faculty members were willing to volunteer to work through the weekend to make sure each student was called. We learned later that, of all the things we did, this meant the most to our students«it made them feel valued, special, and perhaps most important—safe.
Another partnership was created more by chance. From my office, I could see a some TV cameras set up on West Street; I walked over to the CBS van and asked if they would like to broadcast from a better location. "What will it cost?"they asked. "Nothing—just let our students know when we are about to reopen!"So CBS came and broadcast from our roof. This was important because CBS was the only station New Yorkers without cable could get.

Back to the Business of Teaching...
Before the dust cloud from the doomed buildings settled, we were trying to identify available space for our 17,000 students to resume their studies in as normal an atmosphere as possible and as soon as possible.

Our first challenge was to find an alternative place to serve as an emergency office. We do conduct operations at other locations in the city, and one is our Educational Opportunity Center in Harlem at 125th Street. The director of the EOC, Laura Higgins, gave us its Learning Resource Center to use as an emergency office, which we did for two weeks.

We immediately planned trauma and grief counseling for students, employees, and the general public, particularly workers in the downtown business community. We had turned to the downtown business community so often for support, that we were happy to be able to offer this support. With phones and space given to us by CUNY, we set up a trauma helpline on September 15, which was staffed by our college counselors.

We also realized that many of our students or employees just needed information. This was one of the most frustrating aspects of this crisis in its early stages. When our phones went down, our email went down, so we could not even update our Web site. Fortunately, CUNY stepped in to help by posting information about BMCC on its site.

Within days after the attack, we were contacting other CUNY and SUNY campuses in search of swing space for continuing education classes. Classes began in these alternate sites on Sept. 22.

While most of our staff worked out of the Harlem office, I felt it was important to be there on campus. I spent a lot of time on my cell phone.

Miraculously, our students were able to come back to class less than three weeks after the tragedy—on October 1. The fact that we were able to do so speaks volumes about the strong leadership team with which we are blessed at BMCC«and the many selfless employees who worked so diligently during this challenging hiatus.

"Stronger Than Ever". . .
As students returned, our attention turned to morale and mental health. T-shirts saying "BMCC, stronger than ever"were distributed, and we arranged for a group of non- denominational chaplains, trained in trauma counseling, to be on campus the first two weeks. Each faculty member received information about the symptoms of trauma they might expect to see in some students. A town meeting was also held and we invited students to express their feelings on a "healing wall "—a place for them to write their thoughts, hopes, and fears.

Our re-opening went flawlessly. One of the keys to our success was good, clear, and honest communication ˙ between ourselves as a leadership group, and with all our constituents: students, employees, and other government agencies. We succeeded because we put our students, their well being, and their education first—and because we enjoyed the tremendous good will of a faculty and staff that pulled together in a time of crisis.

Some final words...
The World Trade Center tragedy has made our educational mission more critical than ever. Terrorism is fueled by hatred, and hatred feeds on ignorance. The words of H.G. Wells ring more truly now than when he first spoke them: "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe."Armies will not stop or even deter the devastation of hatred. Darkness cannot be defeated by darkness. It will only be overcome by light, and education is all about light.

But we aren't returning to education as usual. We are rediscovering that education is not primarily valuable only in terms of workforce skills learned and careers enhanced«as important as these two goals are. We recognize that education, to be true to its mission, must be transformative—affecting not only our minds but also—and perhaps more importantly—our hearts. Now, more than ever before, when the entire world is at stake, we need people who can think for themselves, who can ask hard questions, who can understand the connections between seemingly disparate situations, and who can make decisions wisely.

BMCC is the world in microcosm. Our classes are like the United Nations, so right on our community college campus we have a wonderful opportunity to model a better future, not only for our immediate community in New York City, but for the world. And if we all act that way on each of our campuses, we will build a better world.