A College President Worries About an Unreflective Focus on Ourselves

By Jeffrey R. Young
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Liberal-arts colleges have become laboratories for students and faculty members to attempt to sort through the issues surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11, says M. Lee Pelton, president of Willamette University and a former dean at Dartmouth College and Colgate University. But much of that discussion has focused inward -- on the United States' identity -- rather than on a search for a better understanding of the rest of the world, he adds.

Q. How has your job as a college president changed as a result of September 11?

A. Well, my priorities have not fundamentally changed. However, I have become more acutely aware of how fragile our educational communities are, and how strong leadership is required during times of crisis or great stress.

Q. A year later, what impact did the attacks have on students at your institution?

A. This is an event that had an impact on an entire generation of students and young people. And I think that these students will remember this day, that it will become a point of reference, a marker. ... And students have had some important conversations around race and gender on campus, and 9/11 has become a point of reference for those discussions. What it has engendered in all these discussions is the need to be open to different points of view, and I guess in a way this catastrophic event has been liberating. ... The legacy of 9/11 is not that it globalized our worldview, but that it has Americanized us, in that we feel we have a greater sense of being American. If you think about it, most of the discussions since 9/11 have been discussions or reflections about self-identity and community more than it has been about the world outside our borders.

Q. Is that a negative thing?

A. It could be, and I think it could result in a very unreflective, patriotic sort of sense of being. ... Having taught a course on fifth-century Athens last year, I see some connections between Athens -- this powerful city-state under threat by all of these lesser powers -- and its response, [which was] similar to America's, which is really to become more nationally conscious. It constructed all these great monuments to reflect and symbolize the greatness of Athens.

Q. Is there anything we can learn from that?

A. Yeah. I think what we need to learn is that, on the one hand, it's certainly important for us to reflect inward on who we are and what we stand for, but it would be a horrible mistake to neglect the world outside of us, and to assume that it doesn't matter -- because it does. I think that foremost that we accept our role as an intellectual community, and it means that it's in an intellectual community that we can explore these tough issues and ask ourselves difficult questions. 9/11 for me has reinforced the value of intellectual communities in times of national crisis or conflict, because we become a kind of laboratory where these difficult issues can be discussed and examined.
Section: Special Report
Volume 49, Issue 2, Page A13