Welcome to the the Office of the President

Address to Boards of Trustees and Visitors

December 13, 2001

It is wonderful to welcome all of our Board members and distinguished guests tonight. At this busy season, we are very grateful that you could be with us and we thank you for your support and encouragement throughout the year.

It has become a custom at this annual event for the President to offer a brief summary of the accomplishments of the past year. It is certainly tempting for me to do that tonight, for we have come a long way in the past twelve months. Moreover, I would welcome the opportunity to offer my deepest appreciation to the faculty, staff, students, administrators, and trustees who have made all of this happen.

Indeed, my heart is full of gratitude for the dedicated service of so many individuals to this institution. To each of them, I offer my thanks, and although it may be an inadequate tribute, I dedicate these remarks to them.

Much has been said and written in the aftermath of September 11th. In fact, so much commentary has been offered that it is difficult to imagine any truly original thoughts surfacing at this point. As I have never been accused of being a source of original thought, this is familiar territory for me. In that respect, I am in good company with most university presidents.

Enough of the true confessions, let’s return to the events of September 11th. I, like most Americans, was totally unprepared for the events of that day. While we had witnessed prior acts of inhumanity, some of appalling dimensions, none could compare in scale with these terrorist attacks. First and foremost, we felt sympathy for the families of the innocent victims. At the same time, many of us also felt that we were at risk ourselves. After all, this attack took place not in some remote foreign land, but rather on our own soil. The phrase "homeland security" entered into the American lexicon and with it a previously unimaginable sense of apprehension.

Even now, three months after the attack, our world remains out of kilter. As we seek a new equilibrium, strength may be found in the words of an earlier generation. Sixty-one years ago, in an address before the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the following: "Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization." He went on to say that: "If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ "

Although we face a different enemy today, Churchill’s words were never more applicable. The terrorists of the 21st century are just as determined to undermine our civilization and throw us into a new Dark Age. Therefore, our resolve must be every bit as great as Churchill’s determination. We see this resolve displayed in the skill and bravery of the fighting men and women on the front lines of this conflict. Those who storm the mountain caves of Afghanistan today are heirs to the bravery of their grandfathers who fought on the battlefields of Europe.

On the home front, however, the parallels seem to end. During the Second World War, civilians were asked to make considerable sacrifices. No doubt, some in this room tonight lived through that era of rationing and war bonds. Today, in contrast, our government encourages us to return to our normal lives – as if there is such a thing as normalcy under the present circumstances. For although further terrorist attacks have not occurred, the repeated states of heightened alert remind us that the threat is not yet passed.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of all of this to the Medical University? That is a question that I have asked myself over and over again during the past three months. Here in Charleston, far removed from the fighting in Afghanistan and even far from the destruction in New York and Washington, what role can we possibly play in this great conflict?

There are, of course, a few obvious answers. Some of our faculty and staff are members of military reserve units that have been called to action. To date, the numbers of activated personnel are modest, but more stand ready, if and when they are needed. Equally important, the Medical University must prepare itself for direct participation in the conflict. In that regard, we have the benefit of advanced preparation. For over a year, we have been working on plans for responding to the threat of bioterrorism. Until three months ago, these plans seemed little more than a theoretical exercise. Now that we have witnessed the malicious spread of anthrax through the mail, we recognize that these threats are all too real. As we work to improve our capabilities to respond to biological agents, we recognize the need to address other threats, such as chemical and nuclear contamination, as well. We are committed to working with our sister state and federal agencies to assure that an adequate response can be mounted, if necessary.

In addition to our role as caregivers, we serve as a source of information for the public. During the height of the anthrax episodes, our faculty served as expert commentators for the local and regional press. Microbiologists and infectious disease specialists are not accustomed to being talk show celebrities. Nevertheless, there was a compelling need to calm public fears and to assure that our fellow citizens were well informed about the diagnosis and treatment of potential illnesses. As someone who has occasional interaction with the news media, I was very proud of the professional manner in which our faculty handled these interviews.

Now, beyond these obvious roles, I believe that the Medical University has much more to offer. These other contributions may be less apparent, but I believe that they are no less important. They speak directly to our mission as an educational institution. The students on our campus, most in their early twenties, were raised in an era of peace. As strangers to national conflict, they were even less prepared than the rest of us to deal with the emotions of the past few months. So, in addition to their regular classes in subjects such as anatomy and biochemistry, we have offered optional seminars on the political, economic and religious origins of the present conflict. It may not surprise you that the attendance at these optional lectures occasionally outnumbered the attendance in biochemistry, but that is another story.

Some might say that the Medical University has no business offering seminars in world politics. Indeed, many of those delivering these lectures were faculty members from neighboring colleges who volunteered to help us. We readily acknowledge that we are not experts in these areas. Nevertheless, our goal is to educate students who will not only become skilled clinicians and researchers, but informed citizens as well. We expect that our graduates will become leaders in their respective communities, just as our alumni have demonstrated across this state, and indeed the region and nation. Thus, we must prepare our graduates for their ultimate civic responsibilities. If they spend their time on our campus preparing only to pass national board exams, they will be ill prepared for the broader roles awaiting them in the years ahead. We believe that our students deserve more from an education at the Medical University and we have attempted to meet that expectation.

Of course, not all education occurs within the formal structures of the curricula, with or without optional seminars. Students learn as much from each other as they learn from us. In this respect, the Medical University is quite fortunate, because we have a talented and motivated student body. Moreover, our students, residents and fellows come from many different countries, cultures, and religions. This diversity has proven to be a great strength at a time when it would be easy to lapse into prejudice. Our students and faculty of Middle Eastern descent have shared our horror at the bloodshed in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. They have helped us to understand that Islam does not condone such violence. Most importantly, they have helped us to see the shared humanity that resides within us all. In return, I am pleased that our university community has acted with respect towards our Islamic and Middle Eastern members. That we can live, study and work together in peace and harmony provides a message of hope that goes far beyond this campus.

Admittedly, lessons in peaceful co-existence on a university campus may seem of little significance on the scale of international affairs. We recognize that our efforts in this regard are unlikely to change the course of human events. At the same time, we believe that the victory over prejudice and hatred is achieved one person at a time. To the extent that we, and other colleges and universities, can reinforce values of respect and dignity on our campuses, we have repaired a bit of the rent in the fabric of the human spirit.

At this season of peace, it is particularly appropriate that we end with a message on that theme. Speaking from his heart at a time of global tensions, John F. Kennedy expressed our aspirations when he said that: "We must seek, above all, a world of peace; a world in which people dwell together in mutual respect and work together in mutual regard; a world where peace is not a mere interlude between wars, but an incentive to the creative energies of humanity. We will not find such a peace today, or even tomorrow. The obstacles to hope are large and menacing. Yet the goal of a peaceful world must, today and tomorrow, shape our decisions and inspire our purposes."

As we confront the realities of state-sponsored terrorism in the 21st century, let us not forget our ultimate goal of creating a world in which all people can live in peace and harmony. When we succeed, then the true spirit of the holiday season will be fulfilled. May God grant each of you a happy and healthy new year.