Universities Should Learn Lessons of 9/11 and Transform in the Face of Pandemic

Nineteen years ago, I (Sepehr Vakil) was wrapping up my last summer before college visiting my dad in South Carolina. I was getting ready to enter the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a freshman to study engineering. I was the stereotype, the “American dream” realized, the successful culmination of an Iranian family’s journey to the United States. We had immigrated from Iran when I was a small child, in the midst of the deadly Iraq-Iran War.

The summer of 2001 was an exciting, proud and happy time for my family — not only had I been accepted to a top public university, but I would be studying to become an engineer (a particularly lauded career in the eyes of the Iranian diaspora). But of course, the memory of that time in my life is not all hope and unbridled optimism. At the end of the summer, militarism and war interrupted our life again, this time on American soil. Just days before the UCLA Fall quarter was to begin, the events of September 11, 2001 would irrevocably alter the world and herald a new reality for Muslim and Middle Eastern populations in the U.S. Late in September, I set off to UCLA, blissfully unaware of the impact 9/11 would have on my ensuing college experience. Yet the events of that day had a profound impact on not only my college experience, but on my life to this day.

Over the past year, the two of us (Sepehr Vakil and education policy scholar Julissa Muñiz) have been conducting a historical study of student life at UCLA in the year immediately following the calamitous events of 9/11. What we are learning has significant implications for how universities are (and should be) wrestling with the triple scourges — COVID-19, economic collapse and anti-Blackness — steamrolling our society as we write this piece. We summon the comparison to the current moment (some have called COVID-19 “this generation’s 9/11”) with great caution, as some in recent days have recklessly called for counterterrorism as the preferred national strategy. And yet, we believe there is much to be gained from a historical look at 9/11 that can guide institutions of higher education seeking to step up boldly and morally in the current moment.

Fall 2020 is already underway in a world radically altered and rapidly shifting in profound ways. Between an ongoing international public health crisis and a global uprising against anti-Blackness and systemic racism, colleges and universities are scrambling to determine how they will manage what will be the most uncertain academic year in decades. Like K-12 schools, they have their hands full grappling with the seemingly impossible politics, logistics and ethics of opening up in this perilous time. The devil is in the details — from the consequences of the massive shift toward online and hybrid models of instruction, tuition adjustments, questions around student health, safety and housing, and if and how sports will resume, universities are facing their toughest challenge of this generation. Some will survive, others sadly will not. All will be transformed. But how?

The response (and lack thereof) of universities in the wake of 9/11 offer key insights into what this transformation may look like and, critically, what it ought to look like.

Provide Institutional Support for Vulnerable Students

After 9/11, there was widespread trauma; however, Muslim and Middle Eastern students suffered the added injuries of surges in anti-Muslim racism and discrimination. As a freshman engineering student at UCLA in 2001, I (Sepehr) vividly recall receiving a prank call by a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity attacking my Iranian identity, levying a slew of racialized epithets, and threatening to physically assault me.

Our research reveals my personal experience was reflective of a broader culture of harassment and suspicion for Muslim and Middle Eastern students at UCLA. For example, several Muslim students reported being called “terrorist” in Westwood only hours after the attack, and in a Daily Bruin opinion column, a student contributor issued openly racist threats to the entire Muslim community: “recent events have called you and your organizations into question, and our eyes are on you.”

Similar to 9/11, our current moment is one of collective trauma. COVID-19 is an international phenomenon ravaging far-reaching parts of our planet, and the uprisings against racist police-perpetrated violence in the U.S. signal a remarkable shift in the global conversation around racism. And yet, also similar to the 9/11 moment, while we are “in this together,” the reality is that those who have died at the hands of COVID-19 and police brutality are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Universities need to own this reality, lest they repeat the kinds of indignities experienced by Muslim and Middle Eastern students on college campuses after 9/11.

Now is the time to listen to the specific demands of BIPOC student organizations, create institutional supports for mental health and self-care, financially support the students most gravely affected by campus closures and cultivate anti-racist campuses.

Re-envision Pedagogical Philosophies and Practices

In the academic year directly following 9/11, UCLA smartly created a series of seminars designed to help students not only cope but to theorize the events in a broader historical context. Still, these optional one-unit courses were mostly relegated to the margins of the main curriculum and relied on unpaid faculty volunteers. With the academic year underway, universities have a responsibility to support faculty in imagining and designing a radically different kind of curriculum — one that prioritizes self-care and flexibility while simultaneously engaging students in a Paulo Freireian-inspired critical reading and writing of our new world.

Faculty across all disciplines (yes STEM professors, you too!) should be constantly updating syllabi and working to create pedagogical space inside and outside of their classes for rigorous inquiry at the intersections of race, science, public health, democracy and policing. Learning outside of the classroom should be supported with institutionally funded student and faculty-led panels, teach-ins, book clubs and working groups. And, particularly for faculty of color who so often are unrewarded for their “invisible labor,” administrators need to show their solidarity not through carefully manicured statements but through using university budgets to fuel efforts to transform the university.

Rethink Research Priorities

Finally, this is a moment to rethink the research purposes of the university. Before, but particularly after 9/11, UCLA did more than its fair share in advancing the military-industrial-academic complex. Hallways in the legendary Boelter Hall, where I (Sepehr) spent many a sleepless night as an engineering student, were adorned with research posters containing logos acknowledging funding from the Department of Defense, Raytheon and other “defense” companies. The university was regularly tapped for expertise to aid in counterterrorism, which in its most generous reading is an implicit endorsement of the politics of militarism, war and empire.

In this extraordinary historical moment, we have the opportunity to catalyze a paradigm shift in what university research can and should be. We have the opportunity to usher in a new urgency, relevancy and morality into the lifeblood of university research. Innovation in science and technology can be untethered from corporate and military priorities, hitched instead to the wagon of ecological and planetary well-being. We can aggressively recommit to the arts and humanities. Universities can partner and show solidarity with communities most acutely impacted by pandemics, racism and war, or the next unpredictable yet inevitable set of crises we will collectively face.

This is a profoundly moral moment, and a highly consequential crossroads for higher education in the U.S. What colleges and universities decide to do in the next several months will shape the character and meaning of higher education for decades to come.