On Friday, former University President James Duderstadt addressed a crowd of students, faculty and others about the history and role of activism at the University.
Duderstadt — who spoke at Weill Hall as part of the “Equity, Justice and Social Change: The Michigan Tradition of Activism and Educational Opportunity” lecture series, which was spurred by the nationwide Occupy movement — said that despite the decrease in student activism at the University in recent years, it has played an essential role in raising awareness about societal issues throughout history.
“I believe, on many occasions, student activism has had a positive effect on raising issues of great importance on this campus,” he said. “You have to get people to realize how important these issues are.”
Duderstadt has a deep personal involvement with activism, which he said is largely inspired by his family members. According to Duderstadt, his brother was one of the first conscientious objector to the Vietnam War from his hometown and his sister was the campaign manager for Jim Harris, a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War and candidate for student-body president at Stanford University.
When Duderstadt arrived at the University in 1968 to join the faculty, it was the height of the era’s protest movement and many students were rallying against the war in Vietnam, he said.
He noted that his first challenge as an administrator was establishing a University police force and student code of conduct. Robben Fleming, interim University president in 1988, faced large-scale protests when he eliminated the student code of conduct and attempted to instate a new one. Despite opposition, a program was eventually established to equalize University policies with those of other higher-education institutions, Duderstadt said.
“Like most protests that resist efforts to bring the University in line with the rest of higher education, these eventually faded away,” he said.
Duderstadt added that in the years that followed, students protested in favor of more police officers on campus.
Another prominent issue Duderstadt said he faced as University President was confronting a rowdy Greek community that faced reports of sexual harassment and dangerous levels of drinking. He eventually met with leaders in the Greek community and asked them to bring their students in accordance with University standards, he added.
“I must say … the challenge was picked up by the fraternities, and it led a new spirit of responsible behavior and discipline,” he said.
Duderstadt said the most important issue he confronted while University President was increasing diversity on campus.
After the passage of the Michigan Mandate in 1970 established a commitment to increased representation of minorities within the University, Duderstadt said the University has continued to make diversity on campus a priority. He emphasized the numerous programs on campus that aim to increase inclusion of minorities, including restructured financial-aid programs designed to make higher education more accessible to less advantaged students.
Duderstadt said this effort to increase diversity started under Fleming, following two large student uprisings demanding change, and continued under Duderstadt’s tenure.
“We made certain that this was one of the highest priorities of the University,” he said.
Duderstadt added that by 1996, there had been a 62-percent increase in African American enrollment, with corresponding increases in enrollment of other minorities as well. He noted that more than half of the executive officers at the University were African American by the time he stepped down in 1996.
He said the movement to increase diversity on campus showcases the importance of student activism.
“(This) provides an excellent example of how important student activism is in shaping the evolution of the University in a highly strategic and important way,” Duderstadt said.
Social Work student Kristen Bauman said she was interested in coming to the event to learn about the history of activism at the University.
“(I came to) hear (Duderstadt’s) passion about the history of the University and how activism can be incorporated into the curriculum … and learned outside of the classroom,” Bauman said.
Bauman added that she agreed with Duderstadt’s belief that students are less active now than in previous generations.
“I think Duderstadt was right when he said that our generation … (has) become more apathetic to social justice,” she said.
Business junior Ryan Strauss echoed Bauman, saying he came to the lecture to gain a more in depth historical outlook of activism on campus.
“It was definitely interesting gaining a broader perspective of the issues that have been focused on historically at the University,” Strauss said. “(It) shed a new light on what students could be focused on today.”
—Due to his participation in the event, Editor in Chief Joseph Lichterman did not edit this article. Correction Appended: A previous version of this article misstated that Duderstadt’s brother was one of the first conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War.