University of Michigan PresidentsU_of_M_Presidents.html




It is somewhat difficult to know what to say at an inauguration, especially one’s own. One has the feeling the context yearns for the profound, which only insures that any self-conscious effort to meet the expectation will be mediocre. In the opening scenes of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, one of the books I treasure most in life, a mysterious motorcar with shades drawn, and dove grey interior, appears suddenly on Bond Street, and a crowd gathers believing they may be as near to greatness as they’ll ever get. (Is it the Queen? Is it the Prime Minister? people ask). “[M]ystery had brushed them with her wing …” Simultaneously, a plane overhead begins “making letters in the sky” that all assume will signify the greatness of the moment. But the limousine disappears, and it turns out the plane is just like those that fill the skies over Michigan Stadium every Saturday, in this case spelling out the word “toffee.” “It was toffee; they were advertising toffee,” someone says matter-of-factly, and anticipation of a moment of great portent is wholly deflated. And so I fear that at the end of this you too will feel as if you had just heard the word “toffee.”

Nature, of course, has its kindnesses for exactly this sort of thing. Fortunately, we have means of protecting ourselves rather effectively against our own failures to live up to our expectations. The most common cause of writer’s block is having nothing to say, and yet all of us would-be writers are inclined to interpret the blockage as a proof of kinship with the agony of genius. And just at the moment in life when our bodies splotch and wrinkle and engage in their own forms of continental drift, our eyes go bad. Happily, it would seem, our capacity for self-observation and self-reflection is rarely any better than, and generally inferior to, our I.Q. In all probability, therefore, I won’t even know that you’re thinking you’ve just heard “toffee.”

I should also like to say something at the outset about the timing of this ceremony, since some of you may be thinking, given that I have been in the position for over eight months already, that I am a little like the guest who never seems to leave in my case, the president who never seems to begin. The reason we chose September rather than last April was to maximize both the chances of good weather and the distance from examinations (when everyone gets a little grouchy). I hope this beautiful fall day augurs well for our plans for the future.

Now, some things that need to be said today are absolutely clear. I want to acknowledge and express my love and affection for several people, beginning with my wife, Jean. Jean and I have been married for nearly 30 years. We have as strong a relationship and are as devoted to each other as any couple I know. There is great joy in our family and hard work. Jean and I have both spent so much time and effort in trying to improve each other you would think by this point we would be quite extraordinary people. Alas, that is not the case. It is only fair that I acknowledge today that my taking this position imposes inevitably burdens on Jean, especially on her efforts to develop her own career as an artist. And so I say: For resisting a world that is too slow to catch up with our ideals of social fairness, I am deeply admiring. For patiently and graciously enduring some of what we cannot change, I am empathetic. And for voluntarily embracing with enthusiasm and elegance so many parts of my life, I am forever grateful.

I would like to recognize: Our children, Lee and Carey, and to say how each of them shines so brightly in our eyes and proves how your children’s successes and capacities are so uniquely of their own making. My parents, Lee and Pat, who taught me that the essence of nurturing is self-sacrifice. And members of my family, two of my four brothers, Mark and his wife Debbie, and Brad; and my sister, Tami. Whenever I use the term family metaphorically, I think it derives from its highest form.

I would also like to recognize Jean’s family: her father, Marco, who had he not chosen to be an extremely successful businessman, would have, I believe, rivaled Bo Schembechler as a coach. Jean’s brother, Marco, and his wife Sheila, with their children, Marco, Michael, and Matthew. And Jean’s sister, Patti, and her partner, John. And Jean’s cousin, Paul. Jean’s mother Darlene, who passed away a few years ago, remains a pervasive presence in all our lives, especially today.

Let me say to Bill Bolcom how honored I am by the Fanfare and recognize Nancy Cantor for all the outstanding qualities she brings to the position of Provost.

Finally, I would like to thank Harold and Vivian Shapiro for their presence here today, and in doing so, because time is so precious this morning, all of the other people who are responsible for this event and for the greatness of this University. It was ten years ago, in 1987, when I met Harold in what I believe, but am not completely sure, is the same office I now occupy. (One of the charms of the administration building is that you never quite know where you are in the building; it provides a perpetual sense of disorientation.) I was meeting Harold as part of the interview process for the position of dean of the Law School. I distinctly remember him asking me how I felt about the possibility of an administrative turn in my career, to which I distinctly remember answering something like “I don’t really know.” That, I guess, must have seemed, in those disoriented quarters, like a pretty good answer. Fortunately, for me, it turned out to be good enough, and I have been able to pursue a side of professional academic life that has been immensely fulfilling. It was once said of Frank Allen, who was dean of the law school here in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and one of the foremost scholars of criminal law of his time, that the greatest crime he personally committed was to become a dean, thereby making being a dean seem to others like a desirable goal in life. Harold, too, is guilty of that crime.

I would like, in the brief moments I have today, to set forth several principles, to give you an example that, I believe, ought to guide us and inform our choices in the years ahead. Some have general application to universities, all are specifically directed at Michigan. I have spoken about some of these matters before, but as I grow older, I seem to become more and more conscious of the virtues of repetition at least with respect to deepening our understanding of core beliefs and values.

Here are the principles I recommend:

The Principle of Suspension of Belief

A university is and does many good things for a democratic society. It carries forward human culture and knowledge from one generation to the next; it adds to that knowledge and culture as it passes it along; it develops and applies standards of excellence for measuring what deserves to be included in that body of thought to be transmitted; and from its somewhat detached angle of vision it sometimes serves as a useful critic of society. A university does all these things and more. But its essential greatness, I believe, its most remarkable quality, lies in its distinctive intellectual character a living culture that values and expresses the joy in intellectually and artistically scratching the surface of the world and in reveling in the exploration of its complexity. This involves a hard-won capacity of suspending one’s own beliefs and of risking the unnerving feeling of losing one’s own identity in the process; a capacity of crossing into other sensibilities and, accordingly, of residing in foreign worlds. In this intellectual and emotional venturesomeness the university bears a similarity to the discomforting experience demanded in wilderness. The University of Michigan is the intellectual equivalent of Yosemite National Park.

This special mentality is more than a posture of skepticism, more than a technique for discovering truth and less than an ideal way to live a whole life. The world of politics (and of life more generally) necessarily emphasizes commitment to beliefs rather than suspension of beliefs. This, too, has its virtues of personal courage and its pleasures feelings of solidarity with others. Neither sphere is just one way or the other. The University has its commitments, and politics its enjoyment of openness to the unknown. But there is a very real difference of emphasis and degree, and one that matters. The university stands as a simple and hopefully helpful reminder to the political sphere that we must be continually wary of ideology and of the thin line separating commitment to belief and the totalitarian mind. As a living counter-example, the university in its small way helps nurture a civic personality. It’s also the case that we are not just of one mind on how to live, on what is a good life; in fact, we are of several minds, and sometimes we enjoy commitment and sometimes the suspension of belief and exploration. A good life should have several opportunities with different emphases and the university offers one.

The University of Michigan has been an epicenter of idealism especially in periods of deep social conflict in America. The eras of the 1930’s and the Oxford Pledge and the 1960’s and the anti-war movement all originated on this campus. Such periods of political passions will occur again and, when they do, the pressures on the University to commit itself in the political turmoil will be intense. It is wise that we say now that these pressures must be resisted, not because a Swiss-like neutrality is necessary to institutional survival, not because the university has no concern with politics or with political questions, and not because we in the university are uncaring about the consequences of political decisions. Rather it is because the special mentality of suspension of belief and constant exploration of complexity has itself a higher political and social significance, not least of which is to issue a continuous warning even for those who would grasp the standard of idealism and improve the society. For the ends we pursue do not inoculate us against the disease of intolerance.

The Principle of Publicness

A public university is thought to be a distinct species in the United States. Michigan and Berkeley are commonly said to represent the best of that category. But what is the class, why does it endure, and is it worth having? These questions also require steady thought and reflection.

To be a public university is to be bound by the U.S. Constitution. It is to be more rooted, emotionally, in a locale. It is to be committed, not as a matter of choice but rather of permanent commitment, to offering and to developing opportunities for access to education without regard to divisions of class, parentage, or social status. And, it is also concerned with providing students with access to an education arising from interaction with as many segments of American life as is possible. And it is, at least at Michigan, determined to show that de Toqueville was wrong in believing that a democracy would not aspire to or achieve the highest levels of culture (in the best sense of the word) because ordinary citizens would not understand or appreciate it nor support that quest.

Publicness, I would add today, also is in need of special protections, even constitutional protections, and here Michigan offers a very helpful example. There has been a working principle in this country that academic institutions, even though they are supported by the state, should not be subjected to political interference, at least with respect to basic decisions about what to teach and what to research and on general matters of educational policy. But this idea has had difficulty making its way into law. There are two points to be stressed here. One is that this working principle needs to be extended to other public institutions of culture (I am thinking specifically about the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities). The other thought is that this working principle should be elevated to a first amendment requirement, providing public institutions of culture with constitutional protections against political interference in the content of academic decision-making, even though the state provides funding for the institution. This is too large a topic for today, but the rationale for such a move lies in the democratic role played by universities which I articulated in the first principle. I should say, too, that this constitutional idea is more than inchoate; a few cases intimate at the idea and, interestingly, the Michigan Constitution, in specifically guaranteeing the University of Michigan autonomy from legislative interference, provides something of a model for the development of a national first amendment principle to similar effect.

The Principle of Faculty Autonomy

In the minds of many people today, including some within higher education itself, the organization of the modern university in particular, the decentralization of decision-making and the autonomy of faculty with respect to teaching and research is anachronistic and inefficient. Certainly, this system is contrary to the hierarchical organizational structure prevalent in a free market economy; it makes institutional change more difficult and, of course, there are some faculty, but very few, who take advantage of their freedom. But, to my mind, the most astonishing fact about our universities is the degree of personal responsibility, of personal engagement with one’s work, that characterizes the overwhelming majority of our faculty. It is this kind of sense of personal empowerment within a large organization that is so hard to create and, that is, I believe, more likely to make an institution succeed over the long term, as other more hierarchical organizations come and go. In this particular characteristic, universities share some of the genius that inspires our commitment to a democratic form of government.

The Principle of the Transparent Administration

I share the view a few others have expressed that the greatest problem for the modern university is not its disordered, somewhat chaotic, structure but its tendency towards bureaucracy. Creativity abhors a bureaucracy. Our efforts to focus our attentions on a reality of declining resources have been necessary and generally good. But in such a world there is a risk of taking on the mentality of the miser, of upsetting the balance between trust and accountability, of mistaking incentives for values or of importing certain values into the community under the guise of incentives, of falling into a mindset in which it is preferable to just say no rather than to ask what is the quality of your idea and, if it’s good, what can we do to make it happen. It is critical, I believe, that we understand the function of an administration within the university is to take the attitude that we will do everything we can to make ourselves and the system, whatever it happens to be, transparent or invisible to our faculty and students, as they set about suspending belief and pursuing complexity.

When someone comes to us with an idea that seems good, our response should not be first and foremost what will it mean for our school, our department, or our group. Instead, there ought to be a generosity of spirit, a predisposition to assist, a university perspective at heart, and a sense of pride in helping make things happen without anyone having to know how it happened.

We must remember at all times that the very qualities we talk about and regard as at the core identity of the university the sense of intellectual venturesomeness I referred to at the outset, the desire to nurture students, and so on. These qualities are not, and never will be, created by incentives. Incentives for these qualities are, indeed, the last gasp of an academic institution in trouble. A capitalist or free market economy has its own internal value system, good and appropriate for the production of goods and services. But it is not a value system coextensive with that in the academy. And, while there must be a system for allocating resources within the university, everything will depend upon the character of our administrators, who will be most successful if they operate as much as possible on a system of trust and cooperation and on a principle that we serve faculty and students best when what we do is invisible to the academic eye.

The Principle of Making Our History Visible

I have spoken repeatedly, and I will continue to do so in the future, of the importance of recapturing, of embracing, the illustrious history of the University of Michigan. I have noted how this university in particular has let too much of its heritage slip by the wayside. This is, in many ways, an American problem. One would never know in Florida that one of the greatest poets of the century, Wallace Stevens, wrote a good deal of his poetry there, drawing on images from that special environment. While one might find cloying and too domesticating the references in England’s Lake District to Wordsworth or Coleridge, we have a long ways to go before we will encounter that problem. At Michigan we are a bit like Florida. Fortunately, this is something we can correct, with time. It is vital that we come to understand, to truly appreciate, that to make one’s history visible is part of taking oneself seriously.

To make all of these principles concrete, I want to close with an example:

Arthur Miller wrote his first play during his sophomore year here at the University, while living at 411 North State Street. Coming from New York, with a poor high school record and even fewer funds, Michigan gave him the chance to prove himself and to join a student body as diverse, as “democratic,” he says, as any in the country. Dedicated to exploring what he did not fully understand, he remained in Ann Arbor over spring break and, working day and night, wrote his first play in five days. In Timebends, his autobiography, playwriting was, for him, “ an act of self-discovery from the start,” “a kind of license to say the unspeakable.” He knew he “would never write anything good that did not somehow make me blush.” He says: “From the beginning, writing meant freedom, a spreading of wings, and once I got the first inkling that others were reached by what I wrote, an assumption arose that some kind of public business was happening inside me, that what perplexed or moved me must move others.” And, so, nurtured by his professors and an environment most notably the Hopwood Awards that valued creativity, Miller wrote, and then gave the play to a friend, whose family owned the house and who worked at the University theater. Through Jim’s positive response, Arthur Miller realizes that he has seen and communicated something true, and he is impelled to run through the streets of Ann Arbor. He says:

“Outside Ann Arbor was empty, still in the spell of spring vacation. I wanted to walk in the night, but it was impossible to keep from trotting. My thighs were as hard and strong as iron bars. I ran uphill to the deserted center of town, across the Law Quadrangle and down North University, my head in the stars. I had made Jim laugh and look at me as he never had before. The magical force of making marks on a piece of paper and reaching into another human being, making him see what I had seen and feel my feelings I had made a new shadow on the earth.”

This feeling of elation following achievement, of scratching the surface of our ignorance, at saying something true that makes us blush, may we wish that for each and every member of our community.