Humanity at the Helm

Although my frustrations with the University administration sometimes lead me to believe that I could do a better job, I could not have led a university on Sept. 11. I could hardly speak, the news was so debilitating: the colossal towers of the World Trade Center lay in a heap of rubble; the Pentagon stood, but with a gaping wound; thousands of innocent people were torn from their friends and family before their time.

My mind wandered through a haze of despair that afternoon as I half-listened to the vigil on the steps of Memorial Church. All I heard were sounds—the words didn’t matter much. At some point, I realized that President Lawrence H. Summers was speaking. His tone was constant, but his rhythm was broken. Each word, it seemed, struggled to find a breath that could carry it. There was reluctance in his voice, gravity in his stance and humanity in his hesitation. There were no words for that day, and I think he realized it.

Deep as my sympathy for Summers was at that moment, it has only grown with my recognition of all that he faced. As an economist and ex-Secretary of the Treasury, he no doubt had friends and colleagues in the WTC towers. As a father, he had to endure those losses without the love and support of his children, who were hours away in Washington. And as a university president, he knew that the danger was not past, because accomplices to the attack lurked just across the Charles—if not on this side.

With all that weighing on his mind, responsibility demanded not only that Summers share in our mourning, but also that he secure the Harvard campuses and coordinate the University’s response. Summers carried out those responsibilities with admirable sensitivity. His insistence that fear not bleed into hate—that diversity be protected to the utmost—is a tribute to the power of principles at this institution. Moreover, his efforts to encourage donations and provide financial relief to the victims—including the University’s $1 million contribution to scholarships for the victims’ families—will certainly aid the recovery.

Although some students and professors have criticized Summers for choosing not to postpone shopping period, he did so with compassion, not callousness. Summers explained his reasoning in a Sept. 21 speech at Memorial Church’s morning prayer service:

“We will carry on our work. We will make every day count. In doing so, we will emerge shaken, but ultimately stronger in the face of what has happened. We will show that we have great hope for the future.” Summers understood the burden we all have endured since being shaken by Sept. 11, and he urged us on in the name of hope, not stoicism. The value he placed on each day of our lives, together with his desire to connect with the Harvard community in a spiritual setting, demonstrate the same down-to-earth humanity that he showed at the vigil.

Whether or not you agree that classes should have begun as scheduled, you have to respect the sympathy and sensitivity behind Summers’ decision. Like all of us, the burden of carrying on was heavy upon him. Summers bore that burden with sincerity and determination, and I applaud him for having the courage to share his struggle with us.