Commissioner of Higher Education
The terrorist attacks of September 11th shook the Montana University System as it did people and organizations throughout the country and the world. We shall long remember the sense of unreality that slowly and steadily changed into fear, anxiety, and a dark sense of tragic foreboding. I was offered the opportunity in this brief article to report on what happened within the Montana University System in the hours and days that followed the tragedy.
On the afternoon of the tragedy we gathered in a telephone conference call with leadership from all of the campuses to assess what had occurred on the campuses and to plan for the future. We dealt with immediate issues of security, but equally important began to plan ways in which we could demonstrate that our campuses were "learning communities."
Our most immediate concern was to reach out to our students who might have become the objects of retaliation or harassment. Through our data warehouse we determined the number of Arab/Middle Eastern students we had in the system and our registrars and student affairs divisions immediately began to contact those students personally to offer reassurance and to provide the means to contact families in their home countries. I am proud to report that we had no reported instances of mistreatment of international students.
We also identified employees of the university system in travel status and began efforts to contact them so that we could provide their families assurance of their safety. While we had many employees whose travel was disrupted by the attacks, fortunately we heard of no situation that went further than inconvenience and anxiety.
We also immediately began communication with state and local authorities to plan and coordinate additional security measures. While it would not be appropriate to discuss these measures, the university system can be assured that all reasonable steps were taken. We also determined our requirements under Montana and Federal law to respond to requests for information about students and employees from law enforcement agencies.
After these immediate steps were taken, our campus leaders began to plan events and activities that would demonstrate our sense of community. Students and staff came together on every campus in a variety of settings to share their grief and anxiety, to express concern for others, and to suffer together--the root meaning of the word "compassion." Through events large and small, we found that it was better to stand together than to weep and fear alone.
Of course, real community means more than being together--it means acting on behalf of others. Our students have learned a lot about being in community and serving others because they took the lead in action. From fund raisers to blood drives, and beyond, our students acted upon what they had learned about community by providing resources to victims and survivors of the deadly attacks.
Finally, our faculty energized our campuses to turn the tragedy into a learning opportunity. Through public workshops, panels, talks, and symposia our faculty and administrators focused their intellectual gifts and capabilities on helping our students, our campus communities, and the public at large learn more about world cultures and religions, and the compulsions that turn activists into terrorists.
I have been privileged to serve the Montana University System for nearly eight years. Never have I been more proud. We took measures to protect our own. We behaved as a community--suffering together and serving others. In time, we devoted ourselves to what could be learned from our experiences.