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Faculty members work tirelessly to help media after Sept. 11 attacks

By Amy Agronis on October 5, 2001 in University

Areport from the UC Davis News Service

Dozens of UC Davis faculty members were pressed into public service in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, providing insight - and in many cases reassurance - to the general public by sharing their expertise with the news media on topics ranging from structural engineering to the Taliban regime.

Many faculty members were called upon within hours of the attack, and more than 30 of them have volunteered their time, even on nights and weekends, to respond to journalists in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the aborted hijacking in Pennsylvania.

As an expert on school psychology and crisis response, Professor Jonathan Sandoval of the School of Education was immediately in demand with news agencies seeking to provide immediate advice to parents: How should they talk to their children about the tragedy? And what would images of airplanes hitting buildings do to impressionable minds?

"Be willing to talk about children's fears, mistaken understandings and feelings about injury and death, but don't assume too much," says Sandoval. "Wait for questions and listen very carefully for helpful clues to their thoughts within the questions. A child's questions will indicate what he or she wants to know and what the level of understanding is. When you respond, model calmness and caring."

Sandoval spoke to numerous television stations, including ABC News, and did several lengthy radio interviews, including a piece that aired across the country on National Public Radio. Sandoval also sat in on a live Web interview, responding to questions from the public about how to talk to children for an ABC News special on the events Sept. 15.

The Fox News network invited history professor Barbara Metcalf, a leading authority on the history of the Taliban and the Deoband movement from which it originated, to its San Francisco studios for a taped interview. Metcalf also did two live, drive-time interviews with KCBS and KGO, the leading news radio stations in the Bay Area. It is rare for a single news source to be granted the four to five minutes of air time Metcalf received. She also discussed the importance of support for the Taliban and for Arab-Afghans, such as Osama bin Laden, in internal politics in Pakistan and Afghanistan with San Francisco TV stations. Metcalf was particularly valued by reporters because she regularly travels to the region and has also studied the experience of Indo-Pakistani and other Muslim immigrants to Europe and North America.

Among other contributions, Emily Goldman, an associate professor of political science, wrote an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee.

"We are the most powerful nation in the world and yet also one of the most vulnerable," says Goldman. "Our economic, social and information infrastructures are tied to the rest of the world, and we are a very open, democratic country concerned about civil liberties and government monitoring."

"Further, our military and intelligence systems are still set up to deal with threats like the Soviet Union. There is a real competition between the hierarchical way our military is organized and the non-hierarchical way terrorist networks work internally and with each other. Preparation for a military threat is not preparation for these variously motivated terrorist groups. Frankly, we're not ramped up to deal with this."

Dean Bob Smiley of the Graduate School of Management responded to calls for help from the campus News Service at 7:10 a.m. on Sept. 11 and assisted in pulling together faculty who could address immediate concerns about the economy. Smiley did many interviews himself, including an appearance on the CNBC national news channel, to discuss general economic fallout.

The News Service has provided media with source lists and connections to UC Davis faculty since just several hours after the Sept. 11 incidents. The practice of providing such expert spokespeople in the wake of tragedy is controversial in some sectors, with concerns raised about whether people are taking advantage of crisis for public relations exposure.

UC Davis has typically provided such sources during these times. Immediately following a crisis, the campus receives an increased amount of urgent requests for faculty experts. In this instance, assignment editors and producers thanked UC Davis for its prompt response and the fact that so many faculty made themselves available. The lists of possible media sources also demonstrated the breadth and scope of UC Davis' academic enterprise, ranging from medicine, business, engineering and computer science to sociology, law, political science and the biological sciences.

Law professor Michael Glennon, who had done much national media work last fall during the presidential election controversy, appeared on CNBC to discuss national security and international law related to the attacks.

"Every nation has the responsibility to control activities within its borders, and every nation is responsible for threats to other states that originate within its territories," says Glennon. "If some other nation has been unable to meet those responsibilities, threats against the United States are going to have to be controlled by the United States."

Glennon also wrote an opinion piece on President Bush's doctrine for dealing with the attacks for the Legal Times of Washington, D.C.

Others in the spotlight included Brad Barber of the Graduate School of Management, who discussed investor behavior on MSNBC. Scott Gartner, associate professor of political science, appeared on MSNBC to discuss military strategy and national security issues. Carolyn Aldwin of human and community development was interviewed on KPFA, KFBK, KSTE and KSRO radio stations and by the San Francisco Chronicle on post-traumatic stress and the need for counseling, and provided advice for people struggling to cope.

Professor Emeritus Karl Romstad and his colleague Mel Ramey, both civil engineers, were quoted by newspapers about the structural integrity of the World Trade Center and the fact that steel - after hours of fire - would melt and collapse. Microbiologist Mark Wheelis was quoted in Wired magazine and the Contra Costa Times about bioweapons use and the potential for such terrorism in the future.

The News Service anticipates that faculty members will continue to be pressed into service as the response to the attacks and the economic repercutions, continue to unfold.

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,