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Xavier Magazine | May 25, 2017

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Sept. 11: A Look Back at Academic Day

By France Griggs Sloat

The panel discussion on globalization was wrapping up. It had gone well, and James Buchanan, director of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, was excited about the possibilities for interdisciplinary teaching he wanted to explore with his Xavier colleagues. He envisioned a new course of study involving economics, theology, political science and environmental studies.

He closed with an astute observation: “Our future will either be characterized by monoculture, like McDonalds, or Jihad.” Of course, he was saying, it’s our choice how to move forward and embrace the opportunities that globalization can bring or we’ll end up with one of those two undesirable outcomes.

Then Roger Fortin, academic vice president and provost, came up to announce there had been a plane crash in New York. When he did, the mood of the whole day shifted.

The day was Sept. 11, 2001, and the first plane had just slammed into a tower at the World Trade Center. Michael J. Graham, S.J., was in his first year as Xavier’s president, and he had arranged for the University’s first Academic Day when classes are suspended and faculty take a day to concentrate on exploring new directions for academic offerings.

Ironically, the theme of the day was globalization, which was also one of the panel topics. The others were chaos and complexity theory, and community building.

“Not only was the president there, but also the chair of the Board of Trustees, Mike Conaton,” Fortin says. “Someone came up to me and said you should know there has been a crash in the World Trade Tower. All of a sudden a couple of televisions were put outside the Duff banquet room in the corridor where people could watch the event.”

Fortin told a few people in the room, including Graham, and then made the announcement to the gathering. They didn’t suspect then that it might be a terrorist attack, but when he was notified of the second plane crash, Fortin says, “we began to conjecture it was something sinister.”

Adjustments were made to the day’s programming in lieu of canceling. People were offered the opportunity to go home. Most stayed. There were prayers as the day wore on and moments for people to reflect on their sorrow and sadness. The group grew closer, Buchanan says, and became a community.

“There was a sense of solidarity that day,” Fortin says.

“We decided to make it very respectful, and it took on a different tone and moved away from the agenda. We couldn’t ignore what was going on, so we began talking about it and tried to connect what was happening outside to what was being discussed inside. It ended on a kind of dark note, but people commented on the fact that it was good we were all together and united in prayer and remembrance.”

Marco Fatuzzo, professor of physics, said it was difficult to focus on his panel, chaos and complexity, which convened after lunch. And the audience had trouble paying attention to the topic. “It was like an out of body experience,” he says. “I could see in the people’s faces this was not what they were thinking about.”

But the connection between the terrorist events in New York and his panel’s discussion about what happens to systems when the unexpected occurs did not go unnoticed, Fatuzzo says. It was, unfortunately, a perfect example.

Later, as Fortin returned to his office, he got a call from the wife of one of his best friends. Robert Jalberts and Fortin had gone to high school together growing up in Maine. She told him that Robert had been on the second plane.

While Jalbert’s death was a terrible blow, Fortin says the family turned it into a positive outcome when they used their settlement money to set up the Robert Jalbert Endowed Scholarship fund of $250,000 to help students from their high school attend Xavier. The first of those students graduated in May. Another three began as freshmen this fall.

“It’s very meaningful to the family because now they have their father’s memory,” Fortin says.

On the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, people seem more aware of the responsibilities involved in managing a global community, he says.

“9/11 is a vivid reminder that we are living in a global community, so for globalization to be the first topic (of Academic Day) is symbolically reflected in what 911 is all about,” Fortin says. “It is a reminder of the complexity and of some of the sinister aspects of globalization—that evil can be at our door more immediately than ever in our history.”

All the more reason that Xavier should create a course that looks at all aspects of globalization. Poli Sci 316 does just that. This interdisciplinary examination of the political, cultural, economic, theological and ethical dimensions of globalization is team-taught by faculty from economics, political science and theology, and includes invited guest lecturers from the U.S. and abroad.

“Globalization,” says Buchanan, “is now the most interdisciplinary course on campus.”

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