James Duderstadt: The former president who is reshaping higher education

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BY IMRAN SYED

Published October 20, 2009

As a child, you probably checked off the days remaining in the school year as summer vacation approached. College isn’t so different: As great as learning and intellectual growth are, you are likely looking forward to graduation, counting up credit requirements and counting down to the day when you will finally be able to move on from this long process called education.

Max Collins/Daily
Max Collins/Daily
Max Collins/Daily

But if former University president James Duderstadt has his way, your education — even after 12 years of school, four of college and the likely prospect of graduate school — is just getting started.

“We’re entering a world in which lifelong learning becomes not only a need of every individual, but the responsibility of a democratic society to provide it,” Duderstadt said in September. “It’s a world in which the pace of knowledge continues to accelerate and where you’re one paycheck away from the unemployment line, unless you’re willing to continue to prove your skills.”

Duderstadt, who served from 1988 to 1996 as the 11th president of the University, is knowledgeable about more than just higher education. He is a veritable giant of policy — and philosophy — on an array of topics, including energy policy and the Michigan economy. He is also a theoretical physicist and nuclear engineer by trade.

Thirteen years after his retirement from the presidency, Duderstadt maintains an office on North Campus in the building that bears his name. He rose into a leadership position because he wanted to get things done — and he stepped down when the job was finished.

Though much is often made of his retirement and unlikely return to the College of Engineering faculty, Duderstadt maintains that there’s nothing so mysterious about his decisions. He was a change agent who pushed the envelope, never thinking about whether it might hurt his chances at taking another presidency at a more elite institution.

“I burned a lot of bridges,” he said with a soft chuckle, reflecting on some of the unpopular decisions he made. “But once in a while, you have to do things like that.”

THE BOY WHO THOUGHT YALE WAS IN ENGLAND

Born in Carrollton, Mo. in 1943, Duderstadt was just the second person ever from his town to take the SAT. Passing on the usual career paths for rural Missouri boys in the 1950s (“agriculture, maybe dentistry”), Duderstadt’s parents encouraged him to apply to faraway schools — some of which were actually closer than he thought.

“I applied to places like Stanford and Michigan, and Yale and Harvard — which I thought at the time were in England,” he said.

Sight unseen, the young Duderstadt headed to Yale, with the promise of playing football for the Bulldogs the deciding factor. A culture shock was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any easier. Initially, Duderstadt carried a B average and struggled to fit in with his Andover and Exeter-prepped classmates.

But just as he would later in life, Duderstadt adapted quickly — raising his grades and taking on electrical engineering as his major because, as he describes in his memoir “The View From the Helm,” it was “the hardest engineering major so I reasoned it had to be worthwhile.”

From there, it was the Cold War and the notorious ‘60s that shaped his career.

“A lot of things were happening,” Duderstadt wrote in his memoir. “Martin Luther King was the speaker at my commencement. (President) Kennedy was assassinated in my senior year. The Space Race was off and running. I was interested in the space program, went to Caltech and then got involved in the nuclear area, which seemed like a hot area at the time.”

After a stint after graduation in Los Alamos, N.M., to work on nuclear-powered rockets intended for manned missions to Mars, Duderstadt intended to settle down in California. But his wife, Anne, had other ideas. “Having grown weary of the smog and traffic of Southern California,” Duderstadt recalled, she accepted on his behalf an offer made by the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan in faraway Ann Arbor.

“THE PRESIDENCY SWUNG AT ME"

Duderstadt arrived in Ann Arbor in 1968, and didn’t take long to make his mark.

“I went through the normal process of doing research and teaching and found myself more and more involved in university politics,” Duderstadt said. “I was on (the Senate Assembly), and in 1980 was surprised when the provost called and asked if I’d be dean of engineering. I was 36.”

As dean of the College of Engineering, Duderstadt began the type of work that would come to define his 40 years at Michigan. He was known for restructuring the school, making improvements and advancing the department to prepare for a new age in education.

Duderstadt himself puts it more bluntly.

“I had changed the College of Engineering so much that I felt I wasn’t the appropriate person to serve more than five years,” he said. “They needed someone to come in after me and let it heal a little bit.”

Promoted to provost in 1986, Duderstadt became the first person from the College of Engineering to gain a senior administration position. Then-University President Harold Shapiro may have already had in mind an even higher position for Duderstadt. Shapiro left the following year to become the Princeton University president, which left Duderstadt as the only internal candidate for the Michigan job.

“Not that I was interested in it, but that’s where I found myself,” Duderstadt clarified. “And through a variety of things that happened, the presidency swung to me.”

Duderstadt was in many ways the first modern president of the University. He talked about issues like diversity and repositioning the University for the digital age — ideas that have become mainstays of the University’s identity today — at a time when these were still novel, untested ideals.

His focus on diversity was multi-faceted, successful and largely applauded even by his harshest critics — The Michigan Daily’s editorial page among them. Two of his pet projects, the Michigan Mandate and the Michigan Agenda for Women, improved racial and gender diversity among the University faculty. His later move to extend benefits to same-sex partners of University employees was also successful, though much more controversial.

“I came under enormous heat when I extended the concept of diversity to include sexual orientation,” he said. “(Former Michigan Gov. John Engler) tried to pack our Board of Regents with people that were hostile to that and to me. I lost a lot of support, but it was the right thing to do.”

Another product of Duderstadt’s tenure was the improvement of campus facilities. In a 1996 editorial reflecting on his presidency, the Daily said that Duderstadt’s greatest legacy might as well have been turning the Diag into a perpetual construction zone. But from that age of change emerged a fully rebuilt campus that students and faculty could be proud of.

Duderstadt said the University’s strong credit rating and the weak economy made it the right time to rebuild the campus. Nevertheless, there were critics, from students frustrated by detours to state officials who criticized money spent on construction anywhere besides the revenue-reaping Michigan Stadium.

Perhaps the reason Duderstadt has been able to embrace the controversy and fallout of such unpopular decisions so easily is because he takes a much broader, idealistic view of the role of a university. Describing the University of Michigan as the first true university in America (in other words, one built on a research foundation as opposed to a theological one), Duderstadt stresses that universities and their leaders cannot be too receptive to criticisms from the public at large.

“There are broader responsibilities of universities,” he said. “To be a critic of society, for instance. To sustain culture and transmit it from generation to generation. To take on the kinds of issues that would not be popular. I think it’s terribly important for institutions to do that. It’s not well understood by the electorate, it never will be, but we’ve got to do it anyway.”

“SIMPLY HAVE A VERY POWERFUL VOICE”

Indicating first that he will not criticize the University presidents that have followed him, Duderstadt does admit that they have had different ways of doing things. More than anything, he said, presidents are shaped by the institution and time in which they serve.

“Institutions are much more influential in shaping the president than the president is in shaping the institution,” he said. “These are big, powerful organizations that have lasted a very long time. The ultimate responsibility of a president is to the institution, and through that, to the various constituencies that it serves — students, states, the nation and the world.”

Asked what a University president could or should do to oppose public impositions such as the ban on affirmative action, Duderstadt admits that there isn’t always much to be done — with one exception.

“You have to speak out,” Duderstadt said. “But the difficulty today is that the voice of the president is not nearly as loud or highly regarded or heard as it might have been at earlier times. As president, you always have a lot of responsibilities. Some things are important enough — I felt diversity was — that you simply have to be a very powerful voice for it.”

Regardless, pressures from the government, students, donors and alumni are intense. Duderstadt, speaking of each in turn, was most appreciative of the influence students have traditionally exerted, especially in Ann Arbor. He admitted it can be a “headache” when students disrupt administration meetings or barge in on the president’s office, but he still feels student activism is a positive influence on the University, such as when students pushed for the Michigan Mandate, a University agenda to make racial diversity on campus mirror national and statewide demographics.

“We would not have done that had it not been for the students who pounded on the desks and got our attention,” Duderstadt said.

But Duderstadt believes that students today just aren’t as involved as they used to be and feels the University is lacking student energy and engagement on issues.
Student energy is rarely low when it comes to Michigan athletics, though. And even though Duderstadt was at the helm of the University
through several Rose Bowls and Final Fours, he is very critical of the role of athletics on college campuses.

“I think (athletics) just distorts the American perspective of what universities are all about,” he said. “I am also deeply worried about the degree to which it exploits young people.

“We’ve found that most of the student-athletes that come to the University of Michigan come with the same academic objectives as all of our students. And the fact that a significant number of them don’t finish and get their degree here — and don’t have life afterward in terms of athletics — means they’ve been exploited to benefit coaches and institutions. And that’s wrong.”

Duderstadt believes that it important for the University to do what it can to change its public and state perception. At the University’s bicentennial in 2017, he said he hopes the celebration will ”at least get the university community and alumni to realize the impact of this institution goes well beyond what happens on Saturday afternoons.”

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

His vision of what higher education should be — especially at a place like the University of Michigan — still drives the majority of Duderstadt’s current work.

Duderstadt continues to travel the country quite frequently. He is a sought after voice on higher education and a popular commencement speaker. Despite his North Campus office, he admits that most of his activities since stepping down as president have been external to the University.

“I do teach and have programs here, but my influence on higher education or science or whatever is not in Ann Arbor,” he said. “It’s in Europe or Washington or wherever I happen to be.”

The number of lectures and projects on Duderstadt’s schedule is mind-boggling, though the dry-erase boards in his office help him stay on top of it all. As an appropriate example, he is involved in something called the “Save the World Project.” That project involves defining what the United States needs to do to create a scientific foundation for addressing issues like global climate change, Duderstadt explained.

When it comes to the future of higher education, Duderstadt feels the nature of the University is quickly shifting. Ten years from now, he said, Michigan could be enrolling hundreds of thousands of students per year across the globe.

Though that may sound far-fetched, Duderstadt cited the example of the British Open University, which offers long-distance correspondence classes, as an emerging example. He stresses that the core competencies of universities may not change, but they will be expressed differently through “immersive technology” and connectedness
“What kind of spontaneous emergence will occur in a world where everybody is connected?” he said. “What is going to be the new Google or the new Al-Qaida? That’s an exciting world — one that I’m not going to be around for.”

It will be up to others to figure out how education, democracy and intellectual humanity are shaped in the future. But as long as he is around, James Duderstadt continues to have the will, insight and influence to ensure we at least know what we’re in for.

"It's an interesting future," he said.