The University of Michigan is approaching a singular moment in its history, its bicentennial year in 2017, which will provide an important occasion to recall, understand, and honor its rich history. Key in this effort will be a celebration of the intellectual life of the University. This Faculty History Website is intended as a component of the effort to document the extraordinary academic achievements of Michigan’s faculty in building and sustaining one of the world’s great universities. It provides access to a comprehensive database of information concerning the thousands of faculty members who have served the University of Michigan during its past two centuries.
Such efforts are important in understanding the role of the University, since although Michigan is one of the oldest public universities in America, it also tends to be a rather modest institution. All too often it tends to pave over its past and build anew rather than enshrine its heritage, as do universities such as Harvard and Oxford. As a consequence, Michigan is all too frequently seen (and portrayed) only within the limited public perspectives of conventional colleges and universities, e.g., in terms of young students, old faculties, and winning football teams.
Yet this is unfortunate, since in many ways the University of Michigan has not only provided much of the leadership for American higher education, but its influence frequently has extended far beyond the campus to have world-wide impact. For example, one can make a strong case that the University of Michigan was the first attempt to build a true university in the New World. At a time when the colonial colleges were using the classical curriculum to “transform savages into gentlemen”, much as the British public school, Michigan’s first president, Henry Tappan brought to Ann Arbor in 1852 a vision of building a true university in the European sense, which would not only conduct instruction and advanced scholarship, but also respond to popular needs. He aimed to develop “an institution that would cultivate the originality and genius of those seeking knowledge beyond the traditional curriculum, with a graduate school in which diligent and responsible students could pursue their studies and research under the eye of learned scholars in an environment of enormous resources in books, laboratories, and museums”. Furthermore Michigan faculty members carried this broader concept of the university with them as they moved on to leadership roles at other institutions (e.g., Andrew Dixon White at Cornell, Charles Kendall Adams at Cornell and Wisconsin, and Erastus Haven at Northwestern).
The University of Michigan can also claim to be one of the first truly public universities in America, created by the Northwest Territorial government in a non-sectarian spirit 20 years before Michigan was admitted to the Union. (Technically the Universities of Georgia and North Carolina were the first state universities, but they were highly influenced by the church. Moreover through the efforts of Henry Frieze, Michigan stimulated the development of secondary education (high schools) throughout the Midwest.
One might even consider the University of Michigan as one of the earliest examples of the American research university, with its construction of one of the three largest telescopes in the world, the first teaching laboratory for chemistry, and the first courses in new disciplines such as bacteriology, forestry, meteorology, sociology, modern history, journalism, and American literature. In fact almost every American intellectual movement from the mid-19th century onward must include some mention of Michigan. Beyond its impact on the traditional literature, arts, and science, the University has led in the creation of many new disciplines such as the quantitative social sciences, biomedical disciplines, engineering sciences, and policy disciplines. It has had similar impact on the development of professional disciplines across the full spectrum of health care, technology, business, policy, and the arts.
And all of these achievements can be traced directly to the Michigan faculty and scholars such as: Andrew Dixon White, noted as “perhaps the most significant of the university builders in the United States”, who spent a decade on Tappan’s Michigan faculty before becoming the first president of Cornell; Charles Kendall Adams who put into place Tappan’s University Course (the beginnings of graduate study) and then went on to lead Cornell and later transformed Wisconsin into a research university; Henry Frieze, who not only continued Tappan’s efforts to create Michigan as a university in the German sense but stimulated the birth of the secondary school system in America (and also established the University Musical Society); John Dewey, who while a Michigan faculty member, developed much of the modern theory of learning and pedagogy; Francis Kelsey, who shaped much of the early development of archeology and anthropology; Rensis Likert, Angus Campbell, Robert Kahn, and their colleagues who, through first the Survey Research Center and later the Institute for Social Research stimulated the quantitative approach to the social sciences, shaping fields such as sociology, regulatory economics, and the behavioral sciences; and Stephen Timoshinko, who developed the field of structural mechanics.
The list of achievements by Michigan faculty members goes on and on. Clearly one can only understand the intellectual impact of the University of Michigan by understanding who its faculty members were (and are) and what they did (and are doing). To appreciate the intellectual vitality of this institution, it is necessary to trace the lives of its faculty members, their contributions, and their circles of discourse. One needs to capture their stories and link them to the University’s academic programs, its schools and colleges, departments and institutes.
Yet this is a formidable challenge since many of the University’s schools, colleges, and departments have only brief histories on websites or buried away in file drawers. Furthermore those histories that do exist are usually more concerned with buildings or enrollments or who was dean or chair than the intellectual life or achievements and impact of the faculty.
The broad intellectual span and size of the institution makes it hard to capture its history (or even understand its present nature) through conventional means such as popular histories or occasional papers. Instead it seems more productive to take advantages of the University’s exceptional capacity in digital technology to build online resources that would evolve over time to serve those wishing both to understand and analyze not only the University’s history but even its intellectual structure and impact today.
This Faculty History Website represents an attempt to begin this effort. The goal is eventually to include every faculty member who was ever appointed at the University, working with the University’s schools, colleges, and departments to fill in these databases with information such as photos, biographies, memorials, and even video oral histories for more recent faculty members.
The approaching bicentennial provides an unusual opportunity to document, remember, and celebrate those achievements of our faculty that have made Michigan a great university; to use such resources to reaffirm academic achievement and excellence as the cornerstone of the quality, strength, and impact of the university; and to rededicate today’s faculty members andUniversity leaders as faithful stewards for the remarkable legacy left by previous generations of Michigan faculty members, accepting the challenge of adding their own contributions to extend this legacy so that they may be celebrated at the tercentennial of the University of Michigan in 2117!
The Millennium Project, The University of Michigan
Anne Duderstadt - Project concept and design, Research and development
Molly Wagner - Research and development
Alex Burrell - Website design and development
Photographs from the Bentley Historical Library, Michigan Alumnus and Michigan Technic magazines.