Caps and gowns aren’t usually in style in Ann Arbor in September. I’ve only ever seen them worn around here during graduation season, where students finally receive their diplomas and are forever freed from required courses, bad Graduate Student Instructors and having to stick around until the last possible day of finals.
It felt odd, then, to attend last Friday’s ceremony inaugurating Mark Schlissel as the 14th president of the University of Michigan and to hear him speak about the future of the University. In his speech, Schlissel emphasized his priorities for the University as a public institution, focusing on the importance of diversity, accessibility and appreciation of all voices. He expressed his desire for the University to address the world’s biggest challenges through liberal education and the promotion of cultural understanding alongside the pursuit of scientific and technological advances.
For students current and future, though, no part of Schlissel’s speech will have been more important than his statement that “students and their parents must hear clearly and rest secure that the University of Michigan values curiosity and intellect, not ZIP codes or family income.” With those words, Schlissel echoed another presidential address: one given by James B. Angell in 1879. Angell, the University’s third president as well as the namesake of a large campus building and a leadership organization, argued in his speech that the University’s greatest task is “to reach with our best training men drawn from all classes, from all pursuits in life, and men who are to return to all honorable and worthy vocations … in all parts of the land,” and that “it is by this diffusion of the educated men … that a great school of learning does its highest work.”
Judging from the amount of time he has spent acquainting himself with the state of Michigan and the corners of this campus, Schlissel appears to understand this task — and his leadership role as University president — quite well. He also has an undeniably strong background as the former provost of Brown University and dean of biological sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. All of this combined in his speech to justify the loftiness of the occasion and its accompanying atmosphere.
And what an atmosphere it was. Even considering the event’s importance to the University, the amount of pomp and circumstance pervading it was almost absurd. Dozens of University professors and leaders from other prominent higher education institutions paraded around the acoustically perfect Hill Auditorium in full commencement gear at the beginning of the event. As they took their seats, a University representative took great care in placing the University’s ceremonial mace on a 101-year-old lectern while the organist (the organist?) brought his fourth and final piece to a close. Speakers rhapsodized about the richness of the University’s history, with past presidents such as Angell and Mary Sue Coleman held up as nearly equal in importance to some of the great American leaders of the past century.
Truly, though, many of these leaders are University graduates. They and their University affiliation are vital parts of the institution’s history and image, and it’s appropriate to invoke their achievements at an event like last Friday’s. Most importantly, a good number of students aspire to similar prominence and to see their names on buildings, academic programs and school awards alongside the likes of real estate mogul Stephen Ross, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Dorothy McGuigan, a former University professor and distinguished feminist.
But the fates of these great men and women are not for every graduate of this university — and that is OK. Many will go into their fields and conduct essential, world-changing work that will never attain the public prominence and wealth this school loves to display on campus and in the public sphere. It would be easy for a freshly inaugurated University president — or one caught up in a multiyear, $4 billon fundraising drive — to miss this fact, and, in doing so, have a misguided start to their stint at the University’s helm. Even worse, a president who disregarded this for any significant period of time would begin to alienate those students who don’t aspire to attain great fame or fabulous riches. Carried out over an entire presidential term, this would be disastrous for the University and for society in general.
Due to his prior experiences as an educator and self-proclaimed lifelong student, Schlissel hasn’t fallen into that trap. From his words and actions so far, I have high hopes that he never will. But to live up to Angell’s vision and ensure that the University diffuses dynamic, well-educated men and women across all ZIP codes and into families of every socioeconomic status, Schlissel must prioritize that vision for the full course of his tenure and convince those beneath him to do the same.
Eric Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.