As the editor in chief and before that the editorial page editor of this paper, my job was to help hold the people who work for the University accountable.

Sarah Royce

Despite these efforts to sharpen the Daily’s teeth, I developed a great deal of admiration for this university, its mission and the people who lead it. At the same time, I developed similar admiration for newspapers.

I wish I had more company.

While I was learning to appreciate great newspapers and great universities, opportunists made political attacks against both types of institutions.

The state’s largest paper, the Detroit Free Press, ran – above coverage of the governor’s State of the State Address – a sensationalistic story in January about “waste” at 11 state universities. (The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor was not one of them.)

The Detroit News wrote an article headlined “Professors paid not to teach,” which informed readers that – horror of horrors – professors do research. That story and another one about university construction projects were both accompanied by ads for Dick DeVos (a Republican running for governor) ads on the paper’s website.

To mock universities asking for more state funding, state Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Twp.) held a food drive for “starving” university presidents and faculty. He suggested donating pork.

These political attacks have weakened universities in the eye of the public. On the News’s website, one reader posted a comment saying the state Legislature “should begin an independent investigation into our universities to expose the fraud and waste going on there.”

At a time when our state needs the University most, elected officials have been cutting tens of millions of dollars from its budget to pay for lower and lower tax rates.

Newspapers face similar attacks. Like universities, they face serious funding challenges that dampen their quality. The large corporations that own papers have begun starving them in search of higher and higher profit margins.

On the political front, they are under attack as well. The good newspapers have been deemed liberal rags. The president says they jeopardize national security when they write something that could make his poll numbers go down.

In “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America,” Bernard Goldberg puts the New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger at number 2.

With a daily circulation of a little more than 1 million in a country of 300 million people (albeit fewer households), Sulzberger’s Times is more a niche publication than the nation’s newspaper.

What a commentary on our society that it’s possible to make a political career for yourself by attacking a great university, and it’s possible to make a living attacking the media.

It says even more when University alums mobilize to have an ugly halo around Michigan Stadium removed but remain silent as the state cuts tens of millions of dollars from the University’s academic budget.

How long can a country that does not value higher education or good newspapers remain an effective democracy? How long can it lead the rest of the world?

Even many students at this supposedly dynamic and socially aware university don’t think the issues of the day affect them. If university students can’t look outside of themselves, then I wonder if there is anyone to whom we can trust our shared future.

We do a dismal job teaching citizenship in this country. Do business, engineering – even LSA – students ever learn about the importance of the First Amendment? Are they ever seriously encouraged to vote or to pick up a newspaper? Does any professor or administrator ever dare instill his students with a sense of responsibility?

In the last few years, I’ve written and thought a little about the role of the University in teaching its students citizenship and ethics the way the same institution used to mold the next generation of civic-minded leaders.

At first, I wrote that the University’s grand moral mission to educate the masses, to include people of all walks of life in its student body and to disseminate knowledge for the public good trumped old-fashioned civics and morality lessons.

But maybe this modern form of social responsibility is not enough. Not enough for the University’s own sake, and not enough for the future stewards of a great nation.

CORRECTION: In a column that ran Feb. 12, 2004, I referred to Electrolux as a Michigan company. In fact, it is headquartered in Sweden. I regret the error and the delay in correcting it.

Pesick can be reached at jzpesick@umich.edu.

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