Integrated City University Responds to the WTC Crisis

December 1, 2001 | CUNY Matters Columns

When I arrived at the campus of Borough of Manhattan Community College the morning after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the sun was shining strongly; the constant sound of sirens, and the enormous presence of police, firefighters, EMS and ambulance personnel seemed strangely incongruous. I saw immediately that the main campus was essentially intact, but that the collapse of 7 World Trade Center had severely damaged Fiterman Hall, located at 30 West Broadway.

This 15-story structure, donated by Miles and Shirley Fiterman in 1993, had housed 40 classrooms, computer labs, the New York TeleMedia Accelerator, and the College’s Business and Computer Departments, among other facilities.

My thoughts instantly flew to the 17,000 students on the campus. How many of them had been working there? Were they O.K.? How many of their family members had been lost? Like all New Yorkers, I held out great hope, but the force and speed of the implosion led most of us to believe that there would be a horrific death toll.

We are still struggling to fathom what Vice Chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. called “the greatest loss of life within its academic family from a single cataclysm of any university in American history.” Since this disaster, stories of missing or lost CUNY students and alumni have been featured prominently in New York’s newspapers.

“Across the University, students, faculty and staff responded to the disaster with extraordinary generosity, speed, compassion and resolve.” –Chancellor Goldstein

From the beginning of this crisis, I knew it was important to keep this University open as a safe harbor. The close relationships forged on our campuses make CUNY an integral part of the social environment- an extension of the homes-of our faculty, staff, and student body. The only campus that closed was BMCC, which served as a command center and staging area for some 2,000 rescue workers from many city, state, and federal agencies assisting in the recovery efforts. Thanks to a campaign coordinated by President Antonio Perez, the College was able to reopen October 1st.

Nowhere was CUNY’s integration in the life of this city more evident than in the outpouring from our campuses. Across the University, students, faculty and staff responded to the disaster with extraordinary generosity, speed, compassion and resolve. More than forty faculty and staff experts in psychology and social work staffed the CUNY “Helpline.” People all over the city were able to voice their grief and concerns, and obtain counseling. John Jay College of Criminal Justice worked with The New York Times “9/11 Neediest Fund” as a clearinghouse for donations to our police, fire, emergency and other services. CUNY’s college presidents, administration, faculty, staff, students and alumni provided opportunities for on-campus panel discussions and “town meetings,” blood donation drives, and ongoing counseling and support services. We continue to assist numerous city, state and federal agencies with office space and with access to our tremendously talented faculty and staff experts. Thanks to our efforts to make CUNY a more integrated system, we were able to bring resources from around the University to bear in the management of this crisis. In relocating all the organizations and rescheduling all the activities housed in Fiterman Hall, one of our greatest concerns was the CUNY Research Foundation. We quickly relocated the CUNY Research Foundation at our 57th Street location and, with the use of CUNY computers and phone switches, had it up and running the next day. CUNY colleges with surplus resources volunteered equipment to restore operations at BMCC, as well as the labor and trucks to move it.

CUNY’s integration with other educational institutions and organizations also came to the fore, particularly our partnership with the New York City Board of Education. The Board immediately made five high schools, with more than 180 classrooms, available if needed. In turn, when the Board of Education lost their Internet service provider, our Computer Information Services staff provided Internet service to the Board within 36 hours after the disaster, for approximately two weeks. CUNY also assisted the Board in relocating classes for Stuyvesant High School and others that had to be vacated.

Many other organizations provided invaluable assistance and extraordinary generosity, such as the Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) and the Association of University Architects (AUA), which helped obtain surplus furniture and equipment from institutions such as Heartland Community College, Western Michigan University, Carnegie Mellon University and others.

The integrated University has a clear mandate to contribute to the rebuilding of New York. One direction was indicated at a September 18 news conference I chaired, when Governor George Pataki announced a comprehensive program to cover the full costs of higher education for the victims and their immediate families. CUNY’s Board of Trustees established a World Trade Center Memorial Scholarship Program, providing scholarships to victims, spouses and children of those who died or were severely disabled as a result of the attacks.

New York City residents by the thousands lost jobs as a result of the attacks. The City University assisted the Consortium for Worker Education, the New York City Partnership, and the New York City Central Labor Council in establishing the Emergency Employment Clearinghouse Program, which assists displaced workers in finding temporary employment. Of course, CUNY provides an ideal place for New Yorkers who have lost their jobs to obtain long-term workforce training, certificates and degrees.

CUNY’s wealth of faculty and staff with expertise in fields like engineering, urban systems, public administration, and terrorism can be put to work for New York’s recovery (see story below). Integration is also the keynote of the changes whose necessity has been highlighted by this tragedy. We will, for example, need to be highly sensitive to the experiences and feelings of our students, many of whom come from countries involved in international disputes. CUNY’s students hail from 184 of the 192 countries of origin around the world. Immigrants comprise more than 46% percent of our Fall 2000 freshman class, with almost 52% of that class speaking one of 162 native languages other than English. Discrimination, threats or harassment of any kind based on ethnic or religious difference represent nothing less than an assault on our principles of academic and civil freedom, and will not be tolerated.

While we were able to use the powerful medium of information technology to our advantage in this emergency, we found that our communications strategies need improvement. For instance, we must be able to email the entire faculty across all our campuses, which will require closer coordination with our colleges to get complete and up-to-date email and phone lists. It would also be beneficial to build greater diversity into our phone communication systems, using not one but a number of service providers (such as AT&T or Nextel).

In this “high alert” climate, every university clearly must review, strengthen and refine its security procedures and emergency planning; CUNY is no exception. Our emergency planning has traditionally been focused on events such as snowstorms, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. We will need to assess how to make better use of available technology, and to conduct ongoing training of our staff. The November 8-9 retreat of the Council of Presidents included a thorough discussion of Emergency and Security Management, with the help of outside experts like former Police Commissioner William Bratton, Kroll Associates, and our University Public Safety Coordinator William Barry. This has been a time of deep pain, profound sadness and terrible turmoil. E. B. White’s observation in a compact little 50-year-old volume titled “Here is New York,” that “the city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible,”has taken on a chillingly prescient ring. However, White also states unequivocally that this city, as a symbol of the united human collective, represents humanity’s best hope for preservation:

“The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.”

White’s vision of New York City as an integrated “capital of the world” has implications and lessons for our own time–particularly for The City University of New York. Indeed, it was only as an integrated university, one that could bring together resources from among a large number of colleges and use the university system to full advantage, that we were able to weather this crisis, responding quickly to the city’s immediate and long-term needs.

Clearly, nothing can be the same after September 11, but New York’s fundamental character–and CUNY’s core mission–remains unchanged. The University’s resolve to attract and retain the best and most promising in this City, and to offer educational opportunities of exceptional value, is stronger than ever. We will continue to work towards these goals by making the City University an educational institution ever more closely integrated into the fabric of New York City.