he birchbark trim and Native American artifacts that once decorated the meeting space atop the Michigan Union tower are gone. Footage in “Fight Like Hell,” a documentary about Michigamua released earlier this year, shows that the room where members of the Students of Color Coalition held a 37-day sit-in in 2000 now features unadorned white walls. Michigamua, as such, no longer even exists; the group retired that name earlier this year.

Angela Cesere

To all outward appearances, The Organization Formerly Known As Michigamua – that’s what the kids are calling it these days, as it has yet to choose a new name – has moved beyond its troublesome past. And yet any association with the group remains anathema to a good proportion of campus. Yesterday, the Daily ran a news story (Two campus groups and the student between them, 10/25/2006) detailing how Tony Saunders was removed as the chair of a Black Student Union committee for being a member of TOFKAM. (It’s not the catchiest acronym, is it?) Other members of the senior society were expelled from their activist groups earlier this year.

Those are harsh reactions to a group that says it exists to offer “humble service” to the University. Indeed, if the group has moved beyond its past racial insensitivity – which, for the record, I believe it has – that kind of response is difficult to justify.

I’m able to believe that the group has reformed, however, because I’ve researched the issue extensively and I’ve spent hours arguing about the organization – partly out of genuine interest and partly because my boss, Daily Editor in Chief Donn Fresard, joined the group.

Most students, however, have no reason to spend so much time worrying about a clique of self-selected campus leaders. People tend to fall into one of two groups. There are those – probably the majority on campus – who have heard a little about the society, decided its reforms are good enough and given the controversy over the group nary another thought. There are also those, however, who think the group’s history of racism means it remains tainted, perhaps incorrigibly so.

For those in TOFKAM, (Can someone in the group please hurry up and choose a new name already?) it must be tempting to ignore the remaining critics. They’ll never be appeased, the line of reasoning would go. Our members still face a backlash despite our reforms. We’d better just forget about those who wrongly think we’re still racist and go on serving the University community.

That’s the easiest approach – and it’s also exactly the wrong one.

For years now, Michigamua has been hindered as much by its commitment to secrecy as by its racially insensitive past. The group’s critics don’t trust it, pointing to apparent lapses such as the Native American artifacts found in the Union tower during the 2000 sit-in as evidence that there was never any real commitment to reform. I think those critics are wrong, but I don’t really have a way to prove that, because the secretive organization often seems more concerned with defending itself than with taking actions to earn the trust of a wary campus.

The lack of transparency continues. Saunders kept his name off the membership list released to the Daily last April. Most honorary members of the society keep their affiliation secret. The group hasn’t allowed outsiders to come to its meetings. Writers at the Daily have trouble getting members of the group to speak on the record. No one has any idea what the organization actually does, because its commitment to humility precludes taking credit for its service.

This ideal of “humble service” mainly ends up fueling the ongoing animosity toward the group. Helping others anonymously is a noble goal, and it’s one the members of the group could have carried out without controversy if they chose to form a quiet service organization from scratch.

The group’s past, however, guarantees that it faces a higher level of scrutiny than possibly any other organization on campus. But if its members respond to the attention they face by being open about their activities and showing that they have nothing to hide, interest will inevitably fade away. The student body is inherently transient and tends not to have a strong institutional memory. After a few years of transparency, the group could choose a slow return to the old idea of humble service – and few on campus at that time will see any reason to object.

Michigamua members through the years have been fond of talking about the importance of tradition. Well, here’s a tradition the group might want to recall: In the bad old days, Michigamua literature frequently said the group’s purpose was to “fight’um like hell for Michigan and Michigamua.” Drop the offensive pidgin English, and that’s not a bad dictum. If the group’s members want to do what’s best, both for their group and for their University, they should rethink the group’s commitment to the notion of “humble service.”

Christopher Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu. Daily Editor in Chief Donn Fresard normally edits columns on the opinion page. Because of his involvement in the organization formerly known as Michigamua, he did not edit this column.

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