On a sunny day ideal for Frisbees, footballs and fun, about 5,000 members of the MIT community instead gathered solemnly on the grass of Killian Court Wednesday to share their feelings about the terrorist actions that have stunned the nation and the world. It was the largest assembly in 85 years at MIT for an event other than graduation.
Chancellor Phillip L. Clay told the students, faculty and staff, "We are here this afternoon to pursue a community dialogue occasioned by the terrible attacks in Washington and New York. It is important to share our thoughts and draw on the strength of a community united and today assembled for a dialogue.
"As individuals, we have a mix of feelings -- numbness, fear, anger and sadness. We move among these feelings and experience painful shifts. We parents have similar feelings. President Vest has posted a letter to parents and invites them to follow developments in the community. Because mail is delayed and we have email addresses for only a fraction of parents, your being in touch with them and inviting them to follow campus developments would be appreciated.
"In having the dialogue this afternoon, we trust that great benefit will come from your talking, not a program from this podium. Our remarks from the podium will be very brief. We hope that the effort will allow us to move on a bit even though news in the coming days will bring new gyrations in our feelings. We trust there will be other occasions for conversation.
"Beyond sharing my own sadness, I want to emphasize the necessity to protect the integrity and diversity of our community so that we can manage the passions that yesterday's tragedy unleashed. We have to have open dialogue in a safe and free environment today and in the days to come.
"Yesterday I emphasized the need to respect the diversity of the community represented by members from nearly 60 countries and from all faiths. Today, I want to be more direct in naming the problem and stating our obligation.
"There has already been a trickle of hateful communication aimed at some members of our community, including Muslims and foreigners," he said.
"We have scattered reports of other incidents of cruelty and insensitivity. Whatever the motive of these communications, the result is painful to some of our colleagues and shameful to our community. We must resist the temptation to allow this self-generated pain to take root in our midst.
"Throughout MIT, we should take special care to encourage thoughtful and sensitive communication among all groups and to discourage, within the context of free expression, hateful speculation, ethnic insensitivity, harassment, or other expressions of intolerance, which, in addition to being painful are unfair and unfounded. This is personal obligation we all share whether we are directly responsible for an activity or a bystander. We all have the obligation to protect and support each and every member of the community, " Clay said.
After a moment of silence, Chaplains John Wuestneck and Amy McCreath and Evan Schultz of Hillel offered a prayer.
Before the gathering broke into groups of 15 for more intimate discussions with volunteer facilitators, Professor Steven Graves, the head of the Faculty, Jaime E. Devereaux, Undergraduate Association president and Dilan Seneviratne, Graduate Student Council president, spoke briefly.
"As we talk to each other, let's try hard to listen to each other," said Graves. Devereaux said: "None of us should go through this alone...Reach out and listen." Seneviratne said: "Let us all pool our collective strengths in the community that is MIT."
After the group met, students told the facilitators that they wanted more opportunities for discussion.
On Tuesday night, MIT housemasters, resident tutors and other staff of the Dean's Office sought to contact each student in their living quarters. Dean of Student Life Larry Benedict said, "On Tuesday night, MIT housemasters, resident tutors and other staff of the Dean's Office sought to contact each student in their living quarters. Dean of Student Life Larry Benedict said, "It was quite successful. We paid special attention to students whose families lived in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington."
Robert M. Randolph, senior associate dean, told a morning staff meeting that the diversity of international students creates some situations that are initially surprising. "We have members of the community who are Muslims who were worried about their families and their homes in New York City, which they consider as home," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 19, 2001.