Op-Ed: The future University community is now

Sunday, February 12, 2017 - 3:32pm

The University of Michigan’s third century has begun with a challenge. In the past days, acts of hate — the Islamophobic defilement of a site often used for religious reflection and the illicit use of email to spread racist and anti-Semitic slurs — have required us to work hard at remaining a University community.

How should we respond when our collective and its commitment to learning, research and the public good are under attack? I wish this were a simple question, one easy to answer. But at the University of Michigan, it is not so now, nor has it ever been.

This is not the first time the University has been shaped by forces that denigrate members of our collective and seek to undermine our mission. Our past includes stories of how some on campus have chosen homogeneity over diversity, inequality over equity and separation over inclusion.

The experience of Alpheus Tucker reminds us that we have stumbled over the meaning of community before. As Curator of Manuscripts Cheney Schopieray recounts in the forthcoming issue of the Clements Library’s publication, The Quarto, Tucker was an African-American student enrolled at the University’s medical school in 1863. When harassed by classmates because of his race, University faculty did not rise to Tucker’s defense. Nor did they rebuke the offending students. Instead, the young man was encouraged to leave, which he did, only to enroll at the University of Iowa, where he completed his studies. The cost was personal for Tucker. But the University also paid a price, trading its commitment to training excellent medical practitioners for racism and the exclusion of Black Americans.

The stakes in such moments are high. Just recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and German Justice Susanne Baer talked in Hill Auditorium about how their work as high court jurists grows out of a commitment to democracy. They reminded us that the University community also plays a role in sustaining democracy through the learning, research and public service at the core of its mission.

The justices did not sugarcoat how difficult it is to remain steadfast in the face of hate, violence and provocation. And neither should we. In the past week, our Muslim, Jewish and African-American community members have been among those on the front lines of a campaign that aims to intimidate students into leaving our community, just as Alpheus Tucker was more than 150 years ago.

We are not the first generation of Wolverines to experience how the actions of some can marginalize and exclude others. New, however, is how purveyors of hate also hope to disrupt and even destroy the University community writ large. Racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are the weapons of people who reject our collective mission and aim to undercut our contribution to democracy.

In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to live and work together as students, staff and faculty. We will confront, challenge and debate one another as we endure the hate-filled season that is upon us. The hope for the future University community lies in our commitment to a third century of struggle to become the diverse, equitable and inclusive community we aspire to be.

Martha S. Jones is a Presidential Bicentennial Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies.