1. 2017 Honors Convocation: The Arts – A Public Good in America

    March 19, 2017

    (As prepared for delivery)

    I am proud to offer my utmost congratulations to our University of Michigan Honors Students from Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint.

    Your high levels of achievement at our university are truly remarkable, and reflect an immense amount of hard work and focus. Well done, students!

    I add my congratulations to the Thurnau professors recognized today, as well.

    One of the most impressive things about the University of Michigan is the outstanding culture of undergraduate teaching that exists within our faculty.
    This passion for teaching is an integral part of our 200-year legacy as a public university — and we see the results here today in the students we are celebrating.

    Thank you, Thurnau professors, for your outstanding contributions to education at Michigan.

    It is also a pleasure to welcome and congratulate the parents and family members who are with us today. All of us at Michigan share in your pride for these students.

    Honors Convocations at the University of Michigan are about celebrating excellence at the highest level. For this, our 94th annual Honors Convocation, we examine “the Role of the University in Promoting Open-Mindedness.”

    It is within both of these concepts – excellence and open-mindedness – that I want to extend a special ‘thank you’ to today’s performers.

    This ceremony gives our community the opportunity to appreciate their amazing talents, and the beauty that comes from the hours of study and practice. Bravo!

    At U-M, the arts are central to our university’s ability to promote and advance open-mindedness.

    They complete our great celebrations of academic achievement, like Commencement and Honors Convocation.

    And they reinforce the core values that we have embraced over the last two centuries:

    First, that excellence is not possible without open-mindedness – because to learn, we must be willing to consider new ideas.

    And second, that a university cannot be complete without teaching and exposing its community to the expressions and interpretations made possible by the arts.

    At the University of Michigan, we have always taken great pride in the arts and cultural opportunities that are woven throughout our academic excellence.

    Research and creativity span not only the fine arts and performing arts, but also the many disciplines represented across our three campuses.

    This takes place nearly every day at U-M. We can see, hear and feel the evidence.

    We feel it when performers from our Ann Arbor campus help us understand the emotional impact of complex problems, as they are doing today at our Convocation, and as they have in recent months in examinations of social justice.

    School of Music, Theatre and Dance professor Eugene Rogers said that, “Great art should do more than entertain. Great art should provoke thought and critical discourse, engage the audience, and build a safe, strong sense of community through the exploration of important issues.”

    Rogers directed the Men’s Glee Club’s performance of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.”

    We hear it when UM-Flint English professor Mary Jo Kietzman uses the language of Shakespeare to teach her students how to connect with the local community and the modern world. Kietzman believes, “students in Flint can connect with the immediacy” of the impact of Shakespeare’s words. “It can be easy,” she says, “to forget that all the heat in Shakespeare’s language, the coarseness, the violence, the passion, the sorrow, came out of a very basic sense of survival.”

    We see it in the art of Holocaust prisoners, featured in an exhibit hosted in UM-Dearborn’s Alfred Berkowitz Gallery.

    Titled “Forbidden Art: Illegal Works by Concentration Camp Prisoners,” its creators would have been executed if caught making art.

    Describing a course she designed as part of the exhibit, UM-Dearborn professor Anna Muller said: “We are investigating how men and women of different races and ethnicities experienced oppression and how they use their bodies and develop skills to remain human in dehumanizing conditions.”

    This is a role universities can and should play in promoting open-mindedness.

    By opening our minds, the arts communicate broad perspectives and help us understand difference.

    They teach us how to express ourselves.
    They bring us together and inspire change.
    They are – without a doubt – a public good.
    The importance of the arts to American life and prosperity was first put forward as a policy right here on the University of Michigan campus in 1964.

    In what would become known as the “Great Society” speech, President Lyndon Johnson’s U-M commencement speech challenged graduates to “elevate our national life, and to advance the quality 
of our American civilization.”

    He described our desire for beauty and community as goals that were fundamental to true prosperity, to educational excellence, and to justice.

    As the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic and former Detroit News journalist Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post: “Johnson did something unprecedented in American history: He put art, culture and beauty on the same footing as roads, rights, commerce and security. If you want to understand Johnson’s cultural agenda, you have to see it not as an appendage but integrally related to the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

    The agenda put forward in the Great Society speech created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    Since their establishment in 1966, U-M faculty have received more than 500 grants from the NEA and NEH.

    This has added to our excellence and helped us become what I believe is the best public university in the world.

    And while I believe we should always welcome discussions about how we steward a public investment in the arts, we should not fail to honor what so clearly is a public good in America.

    On that day in 1964, President Johnson’s Great Society speech harked back nearly 200 years: To the Declaration of Independence and to those unalienable rights that gave birth to our nation.

    He reminded us that the purpose of protecting life and liberty was to allow our people to fully engage in the pursuit of happiness.

    He declared that, “our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation.”

    He expressed a hope that our nation would always be “a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the [human] race.”

    As the president of a public university, I hope that we will always remember these foundational American values.

    And as a member of the University of Michigan’s community of scholars, I hope we will always value open-mindedness, and that we will work together to uphold Johnson’s idea, that a “Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”