Lucas Maiman: Yes, our Bicentennial matters

Monday, November 13, 2017 - 4:16pm

At first glance, the University (and only the University) causes the stress that defines many parts of our college lives. That stress has translated to action many times over; it seems that every other week, some coalition of students expresses its grievances toward University of Michigan President Schlissel. This academic year has been no different. In September there began more of a push to rename the C.C. Little Science Building; in October, Charles Murray; and this month, perhaps as a chaser for the acrimonious start to the year, East Quad Residence Hall dining hours. At the University, when students detect so much as a drop of blood shed by the University, you can say goodbye to nuance. Outrage and oppression take the wheel.

I myself am not entirely blameless of this mindset. I have been contemptuous of the University in the past; a few of my columns have even dealt with problems that I believe the University should address. Nor do I believe students must always acquiesce to the University. We pay a premium to attend the University of Michigan. There is something to be said about ensuring we have the best experiences here.

But is our university really so broken that we must harp on its small shortcomings, rather than its years of triumph? Must the student body so frequently drive a wedge between itself and the University?

On both counts, I found myself answering in the negative. I arrived at this answer not out of disdain, but from my Twitter feed. It was on my Twitter feed where, proudly displayed on the University’s Twitter account, I saw an homage to Janaki Ammal, the first woman to earn a U.S. doctorate in botany.

In the backdrop of our own seemingly taxing lives at the University, consider Ammal’s life. Ammal, one of 19 children, was born and raised in India. Although she was arranged to marry her first cousin, Ammal instead left for the United States after she earned a prestigious Barbour Scholarship from the University of Michigan. At the University, she first earned her master’s degree in 1925 and then her doctorate in botany in 1931.

She then returned to Coimbatore, India, where she used her expertise in cytogenetics to create a high-yielding strain of sugarcane that thrived in Indian conditions. Shortly thereafter in 1935, Ammal was invited to be a research fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences, but her status as a single woman of a low caste forced her to move to London to continue her research. Working in London during World War II, Ammal would describe to friends how she would dive under her bed during German night bombings and continue with her research the next day.

Stories of University alumni like Ammal put our own lives in perspective. Ammal used the University to explore and to innovate. For Ammal, the University was not an infringer, an impediment or an institution confining us to our daily routines. The University was instead a bridge, moving her from poverty in India to international acclaim in the sciences. For those of us today who inevitably hail from more fortunate backgrounds, Ammal’s story still offers valuable lessons, like the need to step back and considers the University’s storied history before embarking on our own diatribes.

Lessons like these hold true in the stories of the other impressive alumni emblazoning the University’s Twitter feed. There were the familiar names, of course, like Desmond Howard, the University’s stud wide receiver who won the Heisman in 1991, and Larry Page, the co-founder of Google. But the University predominantly celebrated some of its less well-known, but equally impressive alumni like Ammal. There was William Mayo, who co-founded the Mayo Clinic in 1889; Frances E. Allen, the first woman to win the Turing Award for her high-speed computing innovations; and Robert Shiller, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in economics.

For the unaware, the surge in alumni acknowledgments and folklore comes as the University celebrates its Bicentennial. The University has used the hashtag #umich200 to honor alumni like AmmalHoward and Mayo.

For the cynics on campus, the Bicentennial is easy fodder. A cursory look at the Bicentennial celebration flatly reads as another distraction to dodge on the walk through the Diag. And, for that matter, is this even the University’s true Bicentennial?

A little research reveals that yes, it is in fact the University’s true Bicentennial, and, yes, the Bicentennial celebration is more than a Diag nuisance. If it were not for the University’s prolonged celebration of its Bicentennial, perhaps the stories of Janaki Ammal, William Mayo or Frances E. Allen would have remained sparsely told. If nothing else, the Bicentennial celebration has done a commendable job in acknowledging our University’s history.

Possessing a deeper understanding and knowledge of the University’s history helps us when we feel tempted to lash out at the University. For the students who feel bogged down by the stresses of University life and for those who feel the need to issue demands toward President Schlissel, the Bicentennial reminds us that our most notable alumni worked with the University rather than in opposition.

It does not invalidate our rights as students on campus. We deserve the best here, and it is within our jurisdiction to hold the University to the best standards. But celebrations like the Bicentennial that honor people like Janaki Ammal should give us perspective on how lucky we are to be at this University. There is a wealth of potential for us to seize on campus.

And while protest is a right guaranteed to us all, something I touched upon in a previous column, we would do better to remember the great people and the storied history of our University. We are a part of the University, not a foil to it. Consider the role of the University in the life of alumni that the Bicentennial has illuminated. Appreciate that we go to a University that takes pride in alumni like Janaki Ammal — not all schools celebrate their history. Ally with the University and who knows, maybe when the tricentennial comes along, you, too, will be mentioned in kind.

Lucas Maiman can be reached at lmaiman@umich.edu.