The Campus Remembers

REMARKS: Memorial Service, September 17, 2001
Robert M. Berdahl, Chancellor

We are, in many ways a different people than we were a week ago. We are a diminished community, for we have suddenly lost from our midst beloved alumni and friends.

We are, in many other ways, a different people than we were a week ago. Our "alabaster cities," of which we so proudly sing, no longer gleam, "undimmed by human tears." We have seen the terror of mass murder raining from the skies on helpless people below. We have had our sleep disturbed by nightmares provoked by real scenes of unimaginable horror. We have seen evil on a scale we have heretofore only read about happening elsewhere. We will never again board an airplane or see one fly overhead with the same assurance and security that we once had. We have seen America united in a resolve unlike any we have known since the Second World War, and we have heard our leaders speak openly in the language of war in a way that seems unfamiliar and unmeasured. We have been scarred by this tragedy. And we have been changed.

But let us resolve here today not to be changed too much. We are a community of learners committed to unchanging principles. In moments such as these, when a sea change of attitude is upon us, we must remind ourselves of the enduring principles that form the foundation of a free and civilized society. These principles also provide the bedrock for academic community.

Today, as we honor those thousands lost, as we struggle to bid farewell to alumni and friends of this University, there perhaps is no more appropriate way to honor them than to remind ourselves of what we stand for as a University. We are here because we believe that education is the basis for both freedom and civilized behavior. As H. G. Wells has written, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

As a university, we are a community committed to seeking truth. Seeking truth, speaking truth, as we are given to see it, is often difficult, but never more than in times like these, for we know that in war, truth is often the first casualty. But our obligation, as an academic community, is to preserve this University as a place where seekers of truth are safe from the winds of popular opinion and political rhetoric that swirl around it. Our responsibility is to provide a safe haven for all who come here to learn.

Truth can only be approached, it can only be realized, by the exercise of free and open conversation, a discussion free of rancor, a discussion liberated from the strictures of dogma, a discussion emancipated from the demands for the acquiescence of others.

Genuine participants in such a community of conversation recognize that the truth is rarely simple, often elusive, and frequently incomplete. Genuine discourse will require the discipline of understanding the complexity of human affairs.

To preserve the University as a place of reasoned inquiry and free expression depends on our capacity to understand our differences and to respect one another's opinions. It depends on the genuine determination to learn from one another. And it requires humility.

If we preserve our commitment to the principles of a free university, if we preserve our commitment to genuine intellectual discourse and the determination to understand fully the world in which we now live, we need not fear what lies ahead, for truth and understanding will ultimately prevail. Let us, therefore, honor these tragically dead, let us memorialize those alumni who brought some of the light of this place to those whose lives they touched, let us honor these by rededicating ourselves to the task of assuring that this University will forever be committed to the principles of free thought and civilized discourse.

W. H. Auden expressed this affirming resolve when, at the very outset of the Second World War, he wrote his poem, "September 1, 1939." Reflecting on the onset of war, he wrote in despair:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low and dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Yet Auden was moved from anger and despair to resolve. And he wrote, in the last stanza of the poem a message for us today.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In the uncertain days to come, as our nation faces difficult decisions, let those of us who hold the candle of learning in our hands, hold firm in the vigil for freedom and reasoned discourse. Let us not allow ourselves and our community to be changed, but let our "affirming flame" light the way out of the darkness that threatens. Let there be light. Fiat lux.