One week after Rebecca Weber started her first year at Columbia, she looked up to see black smoke floating over campus.
It had drifted from the smoldering area that would come to be known as Ground Zero, an image that has remained with Weber for the last decade.
“I felt like Columbia was a world away from the attacks, and yet there were reminders that that was totally not true,” Weber, CC ’05, said recently. “That was a very jarring reminder that although 116th Street seemed very far from [downtown] Manhattan, it is physically not that far at all.”
Columbia University lost 41 affiliates in the terrorist attacks of that day. For the class of 2005, the attacks came to define their four years, and future classes have felt their effects ripple through the University in other ways—academic and religious, social and psychological.
Ten years later, students and administrators who were on campus at the time of the attacks said feelings of fear, confusion, and unity have stayed with them.
Austin Quigley, the dean of Columbia College from 1995 to 2009, described the feeling of loss as a collective emotion—“even if we didn’t know them, they were one of us.”
A decade later, he said the sense of unity that followed has also left its mark.
“There is a much stronger sense of people feeling that they need to contribute to the place, to take some responsibility for it and to strengthen it for people that come after them,” he said.
SIRENS, THEN CANDLELIGHT
The World Trade Center collapsed just a few miles away from campus, and for many on that day, the tragedy felt even closer.
“There was an odor in the air that was so strong—the smoke,” Jewelnel Davis, the University chaplain and director of Earl Hall, said. “You were breathing in lost hopes. You were breathing in broken families. You were breathing in, you know, just terror.”
“It was as if there was a fire close by,” Greg Shill, CC ’02, said.
Raquel Whittaker, assistant director for the Office of the Chaplain, remembered the sounds.
“Everything else stopped,” Whittaker said. “You couldn’t hear any planes or traffic. All you could hear was sirens. Sirens, sirens, sirens.”
By nighttime on the day of the attacks, “everyone wanted to come together to pay respects but at the same time feel a sense of community,” said Scott Koonin, CC ’02 and then-president of the InterGreek Council. “What came about organically was a candlelight vigil on the steps of Low Library.”
In a show of solidarity between the Jewish and Muslim communities on campus, then-president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel Lani Santo, BC ’02 and then-president of the Muslim Students Association Ayesha Syed, BC ’03, spoke together at the vigil.
“It felt important that a representative of Hillel and a representative of MSA stand in solidarity on a day like that then,” Santo said. “What later grew out of it was that we ended up working together more.”
Santo and Syed said that the vigil helped students sort through the initial aftermath, and Syed said it sparked more interfaith events between Hillel and MSA.
“It was an incredibly moving thing,” Santo said. “A lot of people spoke about losing people.”
Current MSA president Irem Bilgic, SEAS ’12, said that MSA and Hillel have continued to work together in the years following the attacks, recently planning a series of panels on subjects like the origins of religious stereotypes as well as small dinners for casual discussion among members of both groups.
Quigley said that immediately following the attacks, there was no panic on campus, but a pervasive sense of shock.
“We were dealing with a situation that nobody could adequately describe, and I’m not just talking about administrators but students, parents, the people of New York and people all over the United States,” Quigley said.
“The University identifies very closely with the city of New York, so the first reaction that we had was that we felt as if we too had been attacked,” then-University President George Rupp said. “I think there was a general sense of vulnerability and the result of that was I think we did pull together extremely well as a community.”
In the months following the attacks, Columbia provided individuals with ongoing medical care, longer-term counseling for mourners and survivors, legal advice for the families of the victims and the injured, consultation on economic development, and support for rebuilding neighborhoods that were directly affected by the attacks, Rupp said.
“September 11, 2001, was indeed a traumatic day, and its aftermath continues,” Rupp wrote in a statement. “Ten years later we can and should celebrate our collective response to a calamitous attack.”
Quigley noted how students, faculty, and administrators were eager to help on that day 10 years ago.
“Students with different levels of experience and maturity took it upon themselves to help each other,” he said. “People feeling the most calm helping the people the most in tears.”
EMERGENCY RESPONSE MODE
Immediately after the attacks, Rupp convened a University-wide committee to deal with the most pressing issues. Hundreds of staff members were unable to get home due to closed bridges and tunnels, and thousands of students needed to be fed despite the usual supply routes being interrupted.
Solutions were creative. In a time before cell phones were commonplace, the University reconfigured its switchboard to allow more students to call home. Roone Arledge auditorium was filled with cots and became an additional dormitory.
“We scrambled on other fronts as well to meet basic needs—for example, in addressing immediate requests for greatly expanded counseling services,” Rupp said.
Students largely remained on campus, something Quigley attributed to a general sense of determination.
“The student inclination was absolutely not to go home, and I think you can imagine that many parents would think very strongly about how vulnerable students were to be in New York at that time. But the student inclination was determined—‘We want to be here,’” he said.
In an effort to enable students and faculty to deal with the event together, Rupp said that Columbia decided to continue classes the day after the attacks occurred, to allow students and faculty to process the events with people they knew.
Kathryn Yatrakis, Columbia’s dean of academic affairs since 1998, stressed that continuing classes projected an image of strength in a time when many felt vulnerable.
“We decided after the first day that we were going to continue to have classes, the feeling being that we did not want to give in to the terrorists and education had to continue,” Yatrakis said.
It was a decision that still impresses Sania Chaudhry, BC ’05, a first-year at the time.
“What I thought was the most reassuring part of all of it was that as a university, they refused to kind of stand down,” Chaudhry said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be in mourning,’ or ‘Oh, we’re going to be afraid,’ you know, ‘We’re going to go about our daily business.’”
But Tom Gorman, CC ’04, said that at the time he was unhappy to be back in class the next day.
“It seemed really callous to try to get everybody back into their routines the next day,” he said. "In hindsight it was a really great idea. It was important for people to get back into their routines, and in almost all classes the instructor just let people talk and share their feelings. It was much much much better than wandering around campus, which is what everyone had done on 9/11."
At Barnard, students and faculty gathered on Lehman Lawn in the morning after the attacks occurred to hear then-President Judith Shapiro speak, along with Dennis Dalton, professor emeritus of political theory, and Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
“The main theme of my talk at that time was [that] I have been influenced a great deal in my life by Gandhi and King and by their ideas of nonviolence,” Dalton said, adding that he “strongly counseled against any violent or military action against the presumed foe; against Afghanistan or Al-Qaeda.”
He concluded his speech by “urging people to pause, reflect on where we are at that time and to try to understand how this could have happened.”
‘NOT ONE STUDENT’
Jessica Cannon, BC ’03 and now Barnard’s coordinator for health promotion and education, said that President Shapiro’s address reassured her, but she was still conflicted about her connection to the attacks.
“Being at Barnard, I felt very close to, yet at the same time, very far from what was happening,” Cannon wrote in an email. “Yes, I was in New York, a city I had grown to absolutely love, but I was also safe, and not directly experiencing the devastation happening downtown. It was hard to sort through all of that.”
Quigley and Zvi Galil, then-Engineering School dean, met in different dorms on the evening of the attacks to coordinate responses among Student Affairs, the Chaplain’s office, counseling services, and residential staff. The psychological impacts of the attacks remained a focus in the following weeks and years.
Julia Sheehy, associate director of Barnard’s Furman Counseling Center, said that not one student came in on the day of the attacks.
“It was eerily quiet. The next day, we were very busy,” she said.
By December, Dorothy Denburg, Barnard’s dean at the time of the attacks, said that “things had fallen into a rhythm.”
“The semester was back to normal. There were a few students, first-years, who withdrew, but by December, people had moved on to a normal state,” she said.
But the attacks did incite new fears and put students on edge. More commonplace accidents, like a plane crash in Queens a few months after the attacks, caused greater-than-average concern.
“About two years after September 11, 2001, there was a major blackout in Manhattan … the wounds were so new and everyone thought that there might have been some terrorism involved in the blackout,” Koonin said. “As much as we wanted to be tough and put September 11 behind us, I think everyone still carried with them that experience.”
Then-MSA president Syed remembers being attacked off campus after the attacks, by a homeless person who threw a beer bottle at her feet and yelled, “Go back to where you came from.” She said that MSA made it its mission to prevent backlash against Muslim students on campus.
“I wanted everyone to stay calm and not forget that the Muslim girl living in the dorm across the hall from them is still the same person they borrowed a textbook from the day before—that they didn’t suddenly see us in a different light because of the actions of a handful of people who do not represent Islam,” Syed said.
“There were some really negative things that grew out of it, like a culture of fear in the nation,” Santo said of the attacks. “I think one of the nice things for those of us organizing responses on campus is that there was a certain amount of control we could have over the way Columbia University responded to it.”
Despite rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, students and administrators insisted that there were no hate crimes on campus in the aftermath.
But Michael Novielli, CC ’02 and then-president of the Columbia College Student Council, said that there were some bias incidents following the attacks.
“At the same time, even at a place like Columbia where students are taught to think objectively, to respect diversity—even at a place like this—unfortunately, there were incidents of bias, slurs, and there was a feeling that some students were insensitive and that some members of Columbia still have a lot to do in those areas,” he said.
ACADEMIC IDENTITY IN FLUX
Among administrators and alumni, a big concern was whether the attacks would affect the number of people applying to Columbia, according to Koonin, who was also a student member of the Columbia Alumni Board.
“I think the big question was, ‘What would be the immediate impact of the attacks on the incoming class?’” he said. “A lot of students arrived as freshmen and within a few weeks they have this traumatic experience.”
At Columbia, the number of applications continued to increase the next year, though Quigley said the rate of increase slowed.
Across the street at Barnard, the attacks may have contributed to a drop in applications in 2002, from 4,075 the year before to 3,685. It took until 2004 for applications to climb over 2001 levels.
Still, Rupp didn’t remember hearing that administrators were concerned about the effects of the attacks on the University’s prestige.
“I don’t remember it as a focus of attention or an anxiety,” he said. “New York as a whole has only become more of a global magnet and national magnet over the years since 9/11.”
Academically, Columbia has seen increased interest in international relations and security policy. Robert Shapiro, then-chair of the political science department at Columbia, said that Columbia had already been offering courses on the Middle East and terrorism, but that the attacks increased their relevance.
“After 9/11 we were even more interested and were obliged to offer those type of courses,” he said.
At the School of International and Public Affairs, the attacks had a more drastic impact on course offerings. Austin Long, assistant professor of International Relations, has been teaching courses on security issues such as counterterrorism, intelligence, and weapons of mass destruction since 2009. He said that the attacks were the driving force behind his appointment.
“There are many steps to get there, but I would not have had a job at Columbia had it not been for 9/11,” said Long, who has spent time with U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Long and Richard Betts, Arnold Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, are the only full-time faculty members who specialize in security policy. Betts has been at Columbia since the early 1990s.
The attacks also changed the course of individual faculty members’ research. Kimberly Marten, former chair of the political science department, said that she was inspired to study terrorism more deeply upon discovering that her friends knew victims in the attacks. A few years later, she started teaching a new colloquium on political violence and terrorism.
“I wanted to understand the causes of terrorism itself and I wanted to have a better understanding of how to deal with terrorism,” Marten said.
Some, however, still feel that gaps remain in the University’s academic structure. Dalton expressed concern that neither Barnard nor Columbia have a full peace studies program, something he and other professors had tried to initiate in the early 1980s.
“We tried very hard and we failed,” he said, attributing it to a lack of administrative support at the time. But 20 years later and with different administrators in place, “9/11 certainly should have sparked that,” he said.
The attacks taking place just a few miles from campus also provided an extra push for extensive emergency procedures.
Dan Held, spokesperson for Columbia Facilities, said that officials meet regularly to develop and practice the implementation of emergency plans, including disaster responses and evacuations. He added that the University’s plan includes a tactical Emergency Operations Center, with emergency management team members ready to take appropriate action.
Quigley said that coordinating the University’s response has become increasingly important.
“Likewise, reaching out across the school boundaries so that Barnard, the College of Engineering, General Studies, graduate schools … so that everybody has a common body of information and everybody has been reached very quickly,” he said.
A NEW SKYLINE
For many, the attacks were a defining moment in Columbia’s history and continue to resurface in a number of ways. This year, students, faculty, and administrators will be holding a vigil, panels, and forums to remember and discuss the attacks. The University-wide vigil will be held Sunday morning on Low Plaza, and the four undergraduate student councils will be co-hosting a commemorative event.
“I think I had a sense of safety in the city and this country which was shaken, and in my lifetime, it’s become a defining day and it’s just sort of embedded in our psyches now,” Furman assistant director Sheehy said. “It comes up for each of us in I think sometimes random, surprising and variable ways.”
Interestingly, the attacks provided some positive memories as well, of togetherness amid the feelings of chaos and intense personal loss.
Chaudhry said that she was inspired to join the Student Governing Board and the Muslim Students Association “just because of the way that I ended up discovering my community that week.”
“It was a time when I would say I was incredibly proud of the Columbia community, the way that the students and faculty and administrators pulled together,” Chaplain Davis said. “One of the many examples that I can cite in my 16 years where the Columbia community demonstrates that it is able to take care of each other.”
“We weep with people at Columbia. We stand with people at Columbia. We fight with people at Columbia,” she said.
Ten years later, Weber says she feels safer than ever in the city, but symbols of the attacks still haunt her.
Now, when she looks up into the sky downtown, another image stays with her—the Freedom Tower, rising.
“It does give you a slight jolt every time I see it and see the change that’s happening to the skyline.”
An earlier version of this article did not include Tom Gormon's positive feelings about returning to class on Sept. 12, 2001. Spectator regrets this oversight.