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"Excellence is by No Means Enough"
Intellectual Philanthropy and the Just University
Last year, a valued former student bludgeoned me into agreeing to be keynote speaker for a celebration at the university where he now teaches. The colloquium, called to mark a special founding anniversary, was to be entitled "Higher Education in and for a Just Society." With not a clue what I would talk about, I foolishly submitted my own title: "What Would It Mean to Be a 'Just' University?" I had planned to write the speech over the summer but of course did not. I was, though, fortunate to have a brilliant research assistant who would read selected texts on justice and on universities for me and let me know which would be worth my time. So, just after Labor Day in September, I ruminated on the texts he recommended and set about to write.
I took the photocopied texts with me on a train to Washington, D.C., that left my hometown—Princeton, New Jersey—at 6:45 A.M. on September 11, 2001. I intended to read on the way down and to begin writing on my laptop on the way back from a day-long meeting at the Urban Institute, a meeting about research on the subject of philanthropy. Like everyone else, I was mugged around 9:10 A.M.—just as I reached a friend's office in Dupont Circle. I spent about an hour watching the world fall apart on television before it dawned on me that I should try to get home to Princeton before Washington shut down. I was, of [End Page 427] course, already too late. When I arrived at Union Station (having taken the Metro against my friend's advice) about 10:30 A.M., I found the station in the process of closing. I was forced into the plaza in front of the station, where I seemed to be the only person without a cell phone—and for the first time I felt hopelessly isolated without this technology. I walked back to Dupont Circle, had lunch with my friends, then checked into a hotel so I could continue to watch American life implode. I discovered that trains would start up again at 4 P.M. and took the Metro (nearly empty) to Union Station, where I caught the first Amtrak heading north.
Imagine yourself trying to write about justice and universities and what they have to do with each other on that train on that day. I could not write a word. I spent the trip asking myself if there was anything in my religious or philosophical repertoire that could sustain the concept of justice. As of 6:30 P.M., when the train stopped to let me off at Princeton Junction (and me alone—the crew was responding to individual requests for service), I could not come up with a thing. I still cannot, really; and I suppose that, for me, this is the most profound damage of September 11th. My moral universe was rendered dysfunctional, and has been slow to recover. I envy those who seem to have come through the experience with renewed confidence in justice, humankind, God, and the United States. My friend David Halberstam wrote a beautiful prose poem in praise of the United States as a nation and published it in Vanity Fair. I admired the writing but did not share his affirmation. My mood—despair, uncertainty, irresolution—is closer to the dark thoughts of my colleague Toni Morrison, whose memorial statement, delivered at a Princeton service for the victims of the September 11th attacks, appeared in the same issue as David's essay.
But the speech I had to deliver was not going away. The things that I had thought I might say seemed inadequate under the circumstances. It was more than a week before I was able to set pen sensibly to paper. When I finished a first draft, a colleague asked what I was writing about...