Many of us like to imagine the University as a beacon of progress.
We see it as a place where ideas are expounded and values debated. We envision an institution devoted to the education and advancement of its students, a forum where diversity and academic freedom reign.
We assume that whatever the University does – whether it’s erecting new facilities or imposing new rules and codes – is intended to efficiently and productively serve its community.
And when we fork over our tuition dollars, even if we aren’t under the impression that the University is an infallible bastion of progress, we imagine that, at the very least, it’s not an impediment to it. Most of the time, it doesn’t disappoint – but only most of the time.
Over the course of its 190-year history, there have been quite a few instances where the University failed to live up to its creed of liberty and equality. The following are just a few events that you probably won’t hear Campus Day leaders describing to prospective freshmen and their parents.
Breaches of academic freedom
In the 1930s and ’40s, campus was teeming with political activity. Major world events – the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II to name a few – were fueling a national debate in which students were actively engaged. Radical student groups abounded. Controversial speakers frequented campus. But while the students were making good use of their youthful exuberance and First Amendment rights, it didn’t mean administrators were happy about it.
President Alexander Ruthven was less than overjoyed.
In June 1935, Ruthven requested that four students not return to the University for the following academic year. He declared that their “perversive activities” were unacceptable and obstructed the University’s work.
In “The Making of The University of Michigan 1817-1992,” by LSA Prof. Nicholas and Margaret Steneck, a retired lecturer for LSA and the Residential College, some of Ruthven’s original statements about the dismissals are downright alarming.
“Attendance at the University of Michigan is a privilege and not a right,” Ruthven wrote in an annual report from the fall of 1935. “In order to safeguard its ideals of scholarship, character, and personality the University reserves the right, and the student concedes to the University the right, to require withdrawal of any student at any time for any reason deemed sufficient to it.”
In June 1940, Ruthven continued his “purge” of students. He informed nine more that they would not be readmitted in the fall on charges of disrupting the “University’s work.”
Clearly, by today’s standards, the idea that the University might strip you of your constitutional rights in return for the right to attend seems crass, but even at the time it was shocking to hear the president of a prestigious university refer to freedom of the press and freedom of speech as “sophistries” in a commencement address.
High-handed dismissals were not confined to the Ruthven administration, though. During President Harlan Hatcher’s tenure, the University Lecture Committee in 1952 temporarily prohibited two men, who were allegedly affiliated with dissident organizations, from speaking on campus. According to an article in The Michigan Daily on May 20, 1952, the committee was concerned the two might promote overthrowing the government.
Hatcher also ignited protest in May 1954 when he suspended three faculty members who had been ordered to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The faculty members were called to testify by Michigan Congressman Kit Clardy, who wanted to investigate their alleged ties to communist organizations. Hatcher dismissed two of the members but only reprimanded the third.
In September 1969, things got particularly ugly. University President Robben Fleming, who had previously dealt with student activism in a composed manner, lost it.
Students were demanding the creation of a student-run bookstore on campus, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The University Board of Regents agreed to finance the venture, but it refused to cede control of the store to the students. In response, Students for a Democratic Society, a radical activist group, barricaded themselves inside the LSA Building.
Six hundred students protested inside, while 1,000 people showed their support by gathering outside. The students had locked the doors. Faced with a potentially hazardous situation, Fleming ordered about 250 city and state policemen to forcibly evacuate the building. The result? One hundred and seven students were arrested.
Afterward, Fleming remarked that the mass arrests “let students know that there were some things we would not let them do.”
The year 1967 was not a particularly good one for University building projects. In addition to using $2 million of students’ tuition to finance a dubiously popular plan for the Power Center which required three times as much money as was allotted for the construction, part of the Intramural Sports Building ceiling caved and then plummeted into the pool area.
The collapse was caused by rain and snow, which had damaged the building’s beam structure. This frail infrastructure wasn’t anything new, though. The IM Building was supposed to have been renovated five years prior, but the University couldn’t get its act together. According to a story in The Michigan Daily on Sept. 15, 1967, “a frustrating maze of bureaucratic red tape and an administration that appears to be deaf to the entire IM problem” were hindering any progress on the building. Luckily, there were no casualties in the accident.
Perhaps two of the most memorable building-related blunders have occurred in the past decade. They’re fresh in our memories, and, therefore, all the more stinging.
In 1998, there was the “halo”: the gaudy yellow and white steel band that lined the exterior bowl of Michigan Stadium. Decorated with University icons like the winged helmet and lyrics from “The Victors,” the “halo” was met with immediate disapproval from fans, who called it tacky and defiant of the traditional style of Michigan Stadium. Two years later, the halo was removed – at the cost of $100,000.
As far as fan disapproval goes, though, the halo is no match for the University’s plan to add luxury boxes to the stadium. The $226 million project, which includes the boxes, wider aisles and more concessions and restrooms, has drawn the ire of many fans who say it will separate the wealthy from the great unwashed in the rest of the stadium.
But there’s more. The University is entangled in a lawsuit with the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which charges that the renovation plans aren’t in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Last April the group filed the suit, but the University nonetheless approved the final component of the renovation plans in June. In recent weeks, Athletic Department officials have said the University will continue with the project – despite a trial date tentatively set for September 2008. It appears that the pleas of fans and disabled veterans have so far fallen on deaf ears.
A pioneer for equal rights . most of the time
Although the University admitted the first black student before slavery was abolished and was one of the first major universities to allow women to attend, its record of promoting equality is mixed.
In 1969, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare accusing the University of discriminating against women. To help the department with its investigation, some women formed a group on campus to collect more data on the University’s employment of women. The results were discouraging.
According to the group’s report, the average woman’s salary was much lower than that of men in every department; women were disproportionately concentrated in secretarial jobs; and they were often dissuaded from pursuing graduate degrees in particular disciplines.
After these findings were published, the government demanded that the University create an affirmative action program to ensure that it was complying with federal guidelines on hiring minorities and women.
One year later, there was another stir over sexist institutional tendencies. Prior to every home football game, the Athletic Department would host a dinner party for visiting press members and coaches. Guests from the University included regents, vice presidents and the Daily’s senior sports editors.
That is, unless they were women.
The department maintained that because the “smokers” – as these gatherings were known – were private parties, refusing to let women attend didn’t constitute discrimination.
The Daily reported that William Mazer, president of the “M” Graduate Club, said his club had unanimously decided to bar women from attending.
“We don’t invite women for their own protection,” he said. “When a group of men get together and drink, the language gets a bit rough. Women should feel honored not to be invited.”
Gaining equal treatment in the Athletic Department wasn’t the only challenge for female University students at the time, though. The Michigan Union was originally an all-male building, and though the construction of the Michigan League in 1929 as a meeting place for women was a marginal step forward, women weren’t allowed through the front door of the Union until 1956 – an inexcusably late date by any measure.
Also in the ’50s, women had to contend with curfews, dress codes and broad University oversight into their personal lives. Then-Dean of Women Deborah Bacon was ousted in 1961, largely because she had a habit of doling out harsh punishment if she detected interracial dating. To the University’s credit, when she left, she was never replaced.
The University has a spotted record of promoting racial equality, too. Although a commitment to diversity on campus is now arguably one of the school’s biggest achievements, it wasn’t always that way.
In the late 1920s under then-University President C.C. Little – a life-long eugenicist – several campus institutions, like swimming pools, were segregated. In 1928, the University actually sought to create segregated off-campus student housing for black women. The venture was thwarted by protesters, and the University’s outlook on race continued to progress, though there were more hang-ups along the way.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the Daily conducted investigations that exposed a strain of racism plaguing the University. One story noted that many talented and qualified black people were not able to secure teaching positions due to race. When asked why no black person had been offered a teaching job, faculty members suggested two reasons: concern about students’ responses and the widely held belief that higher-ups at the University would never sanction a black person.
At the beginning of fraternity rush week in 1954, evidence of racism on campus abounded. Thirteen fraternities had constitutions containing clauses that prevented people of specified races or religions from rushing. The Daily printed the names of these fraternities. Alpha Tau Omega, for example, banned blacks. Phi Delta Theta accepted only white Christians. Lambda Chi Alpha prohibited Jews and non-caucasians.
Things improved only marginally over the next few decades. Throughout the 1970s, the University was engaged in discussion with members of the Black Action Movement, who were fighting to get black enrollment up to 10 percent from 3 percent by 1973. That didn’t happen, and BAM-organized strikes ensued.
In the late ’80s, the words of an LSA sophomore indicated that, in many ways, the situation for blacks on campus was still far from ideal. On his radio show, the student employed a number of sexist and racist jokes, ostensibly to win over his fans. Needless to say, it didn’t go over too well. The student was promptly fired.
The University still faces an uphill battle with the issue of diversity – especially given the passage of Proposal 2 last November, which effectively banned affirmative action. The University’s response to this and other challenges truly will determine how close it will come to living up to its mighty ideals.