Remembering 9/11: New York College Presidents Reflect on Leading Students Through Attacks at World Trade Center

For many of those alive on September 11, 2001, it was a time that required them to navigate a world filled with questions that could not be answered. For college presidents in New York City, that day and those that followed meant leading their campuses through the uncertainty.

Wednesday marks the 18th anniversary of the terror attacks that claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Memorial ceremonies will be held, teachers will explain the events to their students and people everywhere will pause to reflect on the events of that historically tragic day.

Before that day, the common question was, "Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot?" After the attacks, for a new generation of Americans, that question became, "Where were you on 9/11?"

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Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes on September 11, 2001, in New York City. Wednesday marks the 18th anniversary of the attacks. Craig Allen/Getty

On that fateful Tuesday morning, five college presidents were scattered throughout New York City. One was getting ready to head to the office, another had just returned from a squash game while another watched the smoke billowing from her office window. One was headed to the airport and another was at the hospital with his day-old son.

All of them, regardless of their campus location or size, felt a sense of community that day.

These interviews were condensed and edited for length.

Judith R. Shapiro, Barnard College

Judith Shapiro served as president of Barnard College, a women's higher education institution located in New York City's Morningside Heights neighborhood, from 1994 until 2008. Every morning, she would take care of paperwork before leaving her apartment, conveniently located across from campus, for her office at Barnard.

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Then-Barnard College President Judith Shapiro credited students for being resilient in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Google Maps

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

I was at home finishing getting dressed, getting ready to come into the office. I got a call from my wonderful administrative assistant telling me that an airplane just flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I immediately ran to the television and turned it on, at which point, I saw a second plane fly in. At first, my assistant and I were thinking, "What a horrible accident. How could this be? What happened at what airport?" and then we knew something horrible was going on.

What was your first move?

What I first remember are two things: one, getting everyone together into the center of the campus and two, sending a message. I remember we had to alert the students to immediately be in touch with their families, reassure their families that they are safe and that they should feel safe staying on the campus.

Campus: calm or chaotic?

I don't remember any panic among the students. I certainly don't remember feeling that I had to put on any kind of brave face because I don't remember feeling frightened, personally. I certainly felt responsible and it was a leadership position, but the community was so strong, my senior staff was so strong, the faculty was so strong.

How did students react to the attacks?

My strongest memory really is the strength of that community coming together. I think it's what I expected at the time. The students seemed more able to not only think about their own feelings [than today].

One student, who I believe was one of the journalists on the student newspaper, traveled down to Ground Zero with her camera and must have gotten beyond the place where people who were not first responders [were forbidden] and she came back with these incredible photographs. This wasn't about thrill-seeking. This was about a student who felt she needed to be there and record it.

Do you think it made a difference that it was a women's college?

What I do think about women's colleges at that time is that they made women stronger. I see them as gender stereotype free zones. Women do everything at women's colleges.

Cell phones weren't as prevalent as they are today. Do you think they would have helped or hurt the situation?

I wonder if [not having cell phones] was a challenge or if we were better off. The thing about communication these days is that too much information can be exactly the equivalent as too little.

George Rupp, Columbia University

George Rupp served as president of Columbia University, an Ivy League school just north of New York's Upper West Side, from 1993 until 2002. Forty Columbia alumni, many of whom worked in the financial sector, were among those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

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Then-President of Columbia University George Rupp said 9/11 was deeply personal for the school and 40 alumni were among the lost. Google Maps

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

I was at the gym for an early morning squash game and got back to the office just before 9 a.m. My office colleagues were glued to the TV set. I came in just as the plane was hitting the second tower. We were all in a state of shock and knew right away that it was a very serious situation.

What was your first move?

I called an emergency meeting of our leadership team for 10 a.m. I wrote an email to go out to the entire community electronically and also for posting on an entire range of bulletin boards.

Rupp provided Newsweek with a copy of the message that was sent out following the attacks, which detailed that classes were canceled, but the university would remain open. Students were also informed that counseling and health services were open, and the Chaplain and campus ministry staff were available to students.

"Temporary housing will be made available to those who cannot get home tonight ... Anyone with an extra bed or sofa is encouraged to make it available to a stranded colleague," the message said.

How did students react to the attacks?

The University identifies very closely with the city of New York; so the first reaction we had was that we felt as if we too had been attacked. There was a general sense of vulnerability. The result was that we did pull together as a community.

I was very much in the middle of that effort, and I feel good about our rapid collective response to a calamitous attack.

What was the biggest challenge of that day and the aftermath?

Ironically, the biggest challenges were on small issues. One example is overnight accommodations.

Almost all undergraduate students live on or very near to the campus. Columbia also has over five thousand apartments for graduate students and faculty within walking distance of the campus.

But accommodation for staff is another story, since many commute to the campus. Especially for those who lived in Brooklyn and Queens, the commute was completely disrupted. So we arranged a quite large supplemental sleeping facility by taking over all of the gym for several days.

In 2001, cell phones were only beginning to have widespread use. As a result, our phone lines were constantly busy. We worked hard to open additional lines, especially for outgoing calls so that students and staff could be in touch with their families even as they stayed on campus.

Jennifer Raab, Hunter College

On June 11, 2001, Jennifer Raab took over the role as president of Hunter College, a public liberal arts college in New York City's Upper East Side. Three months later, Raab, who continues to serve as president today, was tasked with leading students and faculty through one of the greatest tragedies in United States history.

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Hunter College President Jennifer Raab had only been in the position for three months when the attacks at the World Trade Center happened and she credited her decisions with establishing her as a leader. Google Maps

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

I was at a breakfast in my office. You looked out the window and could see the smoke billowing. By the time the second tower was hit, I'd actually gotten a call from a journalist saying, 'This is not an accident, this is a terrorist attack,' so I was very much living through it in real time.

What was your first move?

We immediately began to send out communications to tell people that we are here, we will communicate to you the information that we know, this building will be open until the last person needs to leave and we will be doing our best to provide water and food and services so you can be here and have a safe space in this building.

We also run a [Kindergarten through 12th grade], so we had to do the same thing with how do kindergarten kids get picked up? We had challenges there with parents who were lost in the tragedy.

The second piece that became immediately important was sending this message that we are a community, we are New Yorkers and we will get through this together and heal.

We addressed the fact that we had a significant Muslim population and people who appeared to be Muslim. There were so much anti-Muslim feeling that resulted from the tragedy and we had a very clear message that tolerance was the only way forward.

What about you, personally?

These are the moments when you establish your effectiveness as a leader and as a lifelong New Yorker and someone who is looking out of my window to see smoke billowing from the tower, I translated my own emotions into a commitment of leadership. I think stepping up into that role allowed me to establish myself as a leader of Hunter College.

While doing that professional role, I had to worry about where my kid was and relatives who were in the World Trade Center. To find out, did they get out? You had to find two minutes for your personal responsibilities because they're so real while also focusing on the immediate questions.

Campus: calm or chaotic?

It was not a chaotic situation. I think people understood the enormity and were very emotional about it. The communication [from my office] and the fact that we were making a point to say we are one community really united people and kept people calm.

I think it's analogous to what the genius was of [then-Mayor Rudy] Giuliani at the time, to come out and say there's leadership. I think when people feel like somebody is communicating on a smaller scale and that there's a plan for today and the next few months for conversation and dialogue and healing, immediately people resonate to that and stay calm.

How did students react to the attacks?

A lot of people were asking me, what can we do? Because that's a very New York reaction.

What was the biggest challenge of that day and the aftermath?

I have always believed that the way my team and I reacted set a standard for our leadership over the years because we realized we had a number of challenges that we had to fill. There was the practical and the emotional, and the biggest challenge was addressing both of them.

You're still president of Hunter College, what is September 11 like for you 18 years later?

It is a very significant memory because I am still in this office. I can't experience September 11 without looking out the window and reliving what happened. The skyline is different, but that physical sense that we looked downtown, we could see that smoke, we very soon realized what had happened, is still there.

I know for me as a young leader, my ability to lead through that crisis has helped me to lead through many other crises we've had here. Not as dramatic or tragic but it did help establish what effective leadership looked like at a public college.

Joyce Brown, the Fashion Institute of Technology

Joyce Brown was appointed to the role of president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, a public college in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, in 1998. She continues to lead the university today.

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Fashion Institute of Technology President Joyce Brown said she'll always remember 9/11, specifically how crystal clear blue the skies were. Google Maps

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

I remember explicitly. I was supposed to go to a meeting upstate and I was going to fly, so I was going to the airport.

It came over the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center. What I really thought was that the plane must have really been in trouble. The World Trade Center was such an imposing structure, how could you possibly hit the World Trade Center? It must have really been in trouble and falling to Earth.

I had the car radio on, and then another plane struck. As that came across, we passed an intersection, and I looked up. I saw the building and I knew. Then they said the tunnel was closed, transportation, everything, and I turned around and came back knowing we were really going to have to mobilize and figure out what to do for the community.

What was your first move?

I thought I have to gather my top staff, and we have to figure out a strategy for how we're going to hold this community together. Whatever I thought was minuscule compared to how it felt when we got back here because it was like a power had fallen over everything. No one really knew what to do. Everything was systematically shutting down. The airports, the subways, the streets, the cash machine didn't work, the phones didn't work, people couldn't get here.

I knew what I had to do was create whatever cocoon-like sense that we could that people would feel safe here. I needed to set up a communication pattern so that I would know what was happening in the various areas.

What about your own emotions?

I wasn't in touch with my own emotions. I really felt like my biggest responsibility was to hold everything together for the community and people should feel this was a safe place to the extent that we could make it such.

Campus: calm or chaotic?

It wasn't chaotic. I don't know that I would call it calm. I think it was tense. I think people didn't know what to think. They didn't know where it would come from next. We're very close. The smell, the stench of the attack was very pervasive at this end of town and that went on for weeks. It hung in the air.

How did students react to the attacks?

We set up an amphitheater where students could watch the news and set up counseling in other areas. Some students didn't want to see; some students wanted the blow by blow.

It really was a sense of community where everybody pulled together and tried to console and be compassionate and cooperate with each other. It was very telling and it felt really nice that this community came together in the way that they did and I think it's why we got through it.

What was the biggest challenge of that day and the aftermath?

I think the biggest challenge was getting information to people and trying to answer questions when there were no answers. Parents are a big part of the equation. They were worried about their children and there was no way for them to find out, so that was major.

Now, you think in terms of everybody constantly being in communication and being in touch with each other but of course, it wasn't as connected as it is today.

The cell phones were down. The only thing we really had were our own intranet and we set up phones so kids could call home. In lobbies, we had tables where we set up four or five phones.

You're still president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, what is September 11 like for you 18 years later?

When I think about that day, it felt almost weighty. It felt like this was probably the most serious moment and a test of how you react as a caring, concerned leader and trying to anticipate all of the things you might do that aren't the norm. I think we lost our innocence as a country that day, certainly as a city.

After living through that day, would you do anything differently?

Looking at that day from this vantage point, I'm sure I think about many things that might have been done differently or could have been or might have been considerations, but they weren't at the time. Given our world at that time, we did alright.

We did the best we could for the people who were here. We tried to communicate. We tried to reach out and be good neighbors for people who found themselves in our midst and needed to be taken care of, as well.

In this day and age, would things have been done differently? Maybe, but, you were totally cut off. Your cell phone was gone. Your fax was gone. Your internet was gone. So you really had to rely on your wits and your competence to keep yourself together.

Bob Kerrey, the New School

Bob Kerrey served as president of the New School, a private university in New York City's Greenwich Village, from February 2001 until 2010. Normally, he'd go for a run down to the World Trade Center in the morning, but September 11, 2001, was different because his son, Henry, was born on September 10, 2001.

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Bob Kerrey, then-president of the New School, said normally he would go for a run down to the World Trade Center in the morning, but on September 11, 2001, he was at the hospital with his newborn son. Google Maps

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

When I arrived at the hospital [in Hackensack, New Jersey,] people were saying the first tower had been hit. I saw the second tower get hit and both towers come down at the hospital.

What was your first move?

The first concern was for students because we had a dormitory just a few blocks away from Ground Zero. So, the first question was, do we have anybody that was injured? It didn't take long to answer that question.

Then, the next question was, do we have any employees who lost loved ones? A lot of the students and staff at the New School have friends and family who work for the New York Police Department (NYPD) or the New York Fire Department (NYFD) or are first responders.

We regularly communicated with students, but it wasn't necessary to tell New Yorkers what happened. Early on, there was a question about what happened, but within hours you knew it was a terrorist attack.

What was being on campus like?

You just watched the unimaginable, the World Trade Center got attacked and came down. No one thought that was possible. So, you just watched the unimaginable happen and you're saying, maybe the unimaginable will happen again. So question number one was do I stay or do I go?

You're struck with this terror, but you're also struck with the desire to help and to be comforting to people who are suffering.

We felt like we were a part of something important. It wasn't a city. It wasn't a political entity. It was a community so it's hard to put words around both those things simultaneously but you felt both those things simultaneously.

Police officers and firefighters and emergency responders weren't just ordinary people anymore. They were people who had risked their lives. The expression, "good to see you," is normally perfunctory but it meant something in those early days because you just didn't know whether somebody you knew well might be gone.

What did the attacks mean for students?

For these young people who were there, this is a defining moment of their life. I was 58 years old at the time and it's an extremely important moment in my life but not defining. For a young student at the time, it's their defining moment. They'll remember where they were and what they were doing when we were attacked.

What was the biggest concern both immediately and in the aftermath?

The biggest concern of all was are we going to get attacked again? And then once that settled down, I don't know if that was a week or two weeks, you were dealing with the trauma of this attack.

Would social media have changed things?

I don't know if [social media] would have made any difference with how people would have acted at the moment. It might have been easier for personnel with a life or death responsibility for responding to it. It might have been easier for them to figure out what to do because they might have had more immediate information.

Remembering 9/11: New York College Presidents Reflect on Leading Students Through Attacks at World Trade Center | U.S.