1. Inaugural Address: The Power of Ideas and the Value of All Voices

    September 5, 2014

    Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery.

    I approach today’s installation and my service as president of the University of Michigan with a sense of both honor and humility.

    As a lifelong educator and scholar, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of so many through leadership of our great public university.

    I am pleased to be surrounded by the Board of Regents, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the University, as well as many members of my family.

    And to welcome and thank Gov. Rick Snyder and other elected leaders, Dr. Ruth Simmons, President James Duderstadt, academic leaders from across the globe, and colleagues and friends who have helped shape my professional and personal growth for being here today.

    I want to thank the regents for the confidence they have shown in me, as well as the members of the University community for their welcoming embrace.

    I offer special thanks to President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman for her remarkable stewardship of this institution. She has given us a faculty rich in intellectual diversity, a stunning physical campus, and numerous academic programs that are amongst the best in the world.

    She has been particularly generous with her time, and at every turn gracious throughout this leadership transition.

    I must also thank my spouse, Monica Schwebs, and our four children who are here today – Darren, Elise, Gavin, and Madeline.

    I have somehow managed to maintain Monica’s love and support, while too often putting her in the position of trailing spouse. She is an accomplished attorney, a devoted mother and a profoundly supportive partner.

    And to make up for those distant days when her much-too-serious son would not acknowledge her presence at the back of the classroom on parents’ day, I offer a very public “Hi, Mom!” and thank my mother, Lenore.

    She and my father Aaron were a constant source of encouragement for an unusual kid who liked school so much that he never left.

    ***

    A love of learning, a longing for discovery, and a commitment to pursue the truth are the underpinnings of a great university. I am finding each of these here at Michigan in abundance.

    Every day I am struck by the intellectual passion and sense of connection that Michigan instills in its students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

    I have spent much of my first eight weeks as president exploring this exceptional place.

    I am walking in new directions, and I am asking a lot of questions. I am meeting with students, staff, and faculty, learning their aspirations, what they are most proud of, and what they are anxious about as we move forward together.

    More than anything, I am listening.

    There is no shortage of opinions or ideas, and they are always voiced with a desire to make Michigan better.

    My thirteen predecessors have led this university with a keen eye on society’s challenges and our obligations as a public institution.

    Henry Tappan in the 1850s shaped the modern American research university.

    James Angell, who served for 38 years through 1909, was at the fore of making us a global university.

    Alexander Ruthven, a zoologist, successfully guided us through two remarkable eras, the Depression and the Second World War.

    Robben Fleming, an expert in labor relations and mediation, promoted civility during one of our nation’s most fractious decades spanning the Vietnam War and Watergate.

    I am grateful for their collective leadership. They have helped to define and elevate our standing as the country’s first truly public university.

    I too have aspirations for Michigan.

    I am committed to enhancing the University’s already eminent standing as a place where gifted scholars focus on research, teaching, and mentoring the rising generation to become engaged citizens and tomorrow’s leaders in all walks of life.

    This is our mission.

    I will always remember my first day as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins. After a decade as a graduate student, medical resident, and a post-doctoral fellow, I had finally arrived.

    I had a big empty lab, a modest dowry of research funds, and the skills and values I had learned from my mentors.

    It was a little scary, but also incredibly exhilarating.

    The life of the mind, a life committed to discovery and education, is a life unlike any other. Being a professor at a great university, like Hopkins or Michigan, is a remarkable privilege.

    I want Michigan to be a place where faculty always believe they can do their best work.

    This means surrounding them with outstanding colleagues, students, and staff, providing cutting-edge infrastructure, developing the resources to support innovative research and teaching, and last but not least, celebrating their successes.

    In working with the regents, I will always ask how our investments in the future will make the University a stronger academic institution.

    To make the good decisions that will help us achieve these goals, I first need to listen and learn.

    Earlier I mentioned President Alexander Ruthven. He remarked that becoming a college president means becoming an object of suspicion.

    “He often feels,” Ruthven said, “as if he had suddenly become the carrier of a mild infection or at least had a change in personality.”

    I am unchanged. I have been a professor, a dean, a provost, and now a president. But first and foremost I am a lifelong student, and as such I am inherently curious.

    As I discover our university and its people, and as we work together to create a vision of Michigan for the 21st century, our university’s third century, let us from the start agree on some central tenets:

    • First, that we embrace our mission as a public institution as a bedrock principle, a privilege and a responsibility;
    • Second, that the University of Michigan must be a diverse and democratic community, open, and accessible; and
    • Third, that, as members of this community, we will always seek out, encourage, and value all voices.

    ***

    First let me begin by considering our obligations as a public university, and how our contributions can and do change lives.

    For the University of Michigan to maintain its prominence and broaden its impact, we must invest in fields where we can give life to our motto of “leaders and best.” Areas that leverage the phenomenal breadth of excellence across our campus, a reach almost unmatched in the academy.

    And as an enduringly public university, with campuses in Dearborn, Flint and here in Ann Arbor, we must commit to research and teaching that meet the most pressing needs of our global society.

    We live in a remarkable but imperfect world. Racial unrest, environmental threats, religious intolerance, and resource inequities all demand the academy’s attention.

    Our response must include endeavorsnot only in science, technology and professional training, but just as importantly in liberal education, cultural understanding, civic engagement, and artistic expression.

    We must seek partnerships that infuse our economy with talent and energy, and build an appreciation for our region’s heritage as a place of past and future innovation.

    Second, as a public institution, we have a special obligation to extend the reach of our teaching and research across the full breadth of our society.

    I firmly believe that we cannot achieve true excellence without leveraging the experiences and perspectives of the broadest possible diversity of students, faculty, and staff.

    This is challenging work. Not only building a diverse student body, but also creating an inclusive campus climate that is open to difficult discourse.

    Students of all experiences and backgrounds should feel they have a place in this community. We must continue to reach out to the most promising students, from our state and from across the nation and around the world.

    Talent is uniformly distributed across the populace. But opportunity most certainly is not.

    We must encourage every talented high school senior in Michigan to apply here.

    Students and their parents must hear clearly and rest secure that the University of Michigan values curiosity and intellect, not ZIP codes or family income, and that we provide generous financial aid for those with need.

    I did not grow up in a wealthy family. During my freshman year of college I travelled home every weekend to stock shelves and work as a cashier at a supermarket to help pay for school.

    With income from work-study jobs, and with help from scholarships, need-based aid and student loans, I graduated on time from an outstanding university with an education and set of experiences that changed my life.

    Not everyone is so lucky.

    Too many Michigan students struggle much harder than I did to afford college, and I want to make things easier for them.

    It is imperative that we keep tuition affordable and build the financial resources that allow students from across the full spectrum of society to attend Michigan, regardless of their economic circumstances.

    It is why we are raising $1 billion in new support for undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships.

    Michigan’s house must be big and its doors open wide.

    “Good learning is always catholic and generous,” said our third president, the great James Angell.

    “It greets all comers whose intellectual gifts entitle them to admission to the goodly fellowship of cultivated minds. It is essentially democratic in the best sense of that term.”

    This democratic nature of our university extends beyond the academic realm.

    Our medical enterprise trains health professionals and conducts cutting-edge research. But it is also a leader in providing advanced care to the citizens of our state and beyond.

    Our arts programs nurture creativity, while also providing cultural experiences to area audiences.

    Our intercollegiate athletic program builds community here and throughout the world. Most important, our student-athletes learn teamwork and competition, and obtain a world-class education.

    Our commitment to the state and nation is fed by a desire to support communities and educate tomorrow’s workforce. This education is grounded not only in skills, but also in the principles and values of good citizenship, sustainability, creativity, and lifelong learning.

    All of the University’s work – exceptional education and research, life-changing health care, arts promotion and economic development – demonstrates our public nature and our connectedness to the world.

    Since 1817, the University of Michigan has existed to better society.

    As we stand on the brink of our bicentennial, we should celebrate our achievements and our impact.

    Ours was the first large state institution to be governed directly by the people of the state.

    We were the first university to own and operate its own hospital, and the first to teach aeronautical engineering.

    Our scholars have discovered organic free radicals and the gene for cystic fibrosis, furthering our understanding of human life.

    Michigan alumni have written Pulitzer Prize-winning words and Grammy Award-winning music, soared into space, created Google and the iPod, and occupied the Oval Office.

    Most important as we near our bicentennial is to position the institution for its next 100 years by clarifying our ambitions and remembering our mission.

    Our ambition is to become the model public research university.

    And our mission always will be to improve the world through research and education — to build a better place for our children and grandchildren.

    There is no more noble and essential work, and I am honored to lead us forward.

    ***

    This work is also, on occasion, uncomfortable. This brings us to my third tenet, to seek out, encourage, and value all voices.

    Harold Shapiro, the University’s 10th president, used the occasion of his inauguration to shine a light on the dual, sometimes conflicting, roles of the academy.

    We are, he said, both servant and critic of society. We serve society while also questioning and challenging its orders and principles.

    This friction is how we evolve as people and nations, and it requires us always to encourage a wealth of voices.

    One of the most important modes of learning is through discussion – in the classroom, at public lectures, in residence halls and in student organizations.

    That is why I am concerned about recent trends that can diminish learning opportunities in a misguided effort to protect students from ideas that some might find offensive or disturbing.

    Last spring, such accomplished individuals as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, IMF Director Christine Legarde, and Chancellor Emeritus Robert Birgeneau of UC-Berkeley were disinvited or felt forced to withdraw as graduation speakers at prominent institutions because others disagreed with their work, their presumed beliefs, or the organizations they led.

    As provost at Brown University, I saw this firsthand when those who disagreed with Ray Kelly, the former police commissioner of New York City, shouted down and prevented his public lecture.

    A related challenge to open discourse is the issue of self-censorship.

    In the aftermath of this episode at Brown, for example, some students said they were hesitant to express their own opinions for fear of offending fellow students who themselves were offended by the speaker.

    This type of wrongheaded courtesy and political correctness weakens the frank discussions that might otherwise lead to heightened understanding.

    Ideas go unchallenged.

    Opportunities for learning and growth are missed.

    We fail as educators.

    I recently read the autobiography of Robben Fleming, the University’s 9th president. As the 1960s erupted with protest, he acknowledged that college campuses are places of controversy.

    But he worried that without a willingness to listen, sharp differences of opinion would tear the fabric of the university community.

    “Is it too much to hope,” he asked, “that in this home of the intellect we can conduct ourselves with dignity and respect?”

    President Fleming was himself a model leader for his ability to listen and negotiate.

    Twenty-five years later, in 1994, the American Association of University Professors adopted a resolution reminding us that freedom of expression is “not simply an aspect of the educational enterprise to be weighed against other desirable ends.

    “It is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.”

    People have stood on this very stage and voiced unsettling opinions. Ross Barnett was the governor of Mississippi and a segregationist. He opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the integration of his state’s flagship university.

    He was booed here, in 1963, but he was allowed to speak.

    This is what great universities do: We encourage all voices, no matter how discomforting the message.

    It takes far more courage to hear and try to understand unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas than it does to shout down the speaker.

    You don’t have to agree, but you have to think.

    Today’s world can be dangerously customized. With news outlets like the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report, and with podcasts from across the ideological spectrum, we can pick and choose which ideas we are exposed to.

    Too often, we make the easy choice.

    We consume the news that justifies our own opinions, rather than seeking out viewpoints that challenge us.

    It’s comfortable.

    But by surrounding oneself with people who share common beliefs, we risk becoming intolerant and intellectually stunted as a society.

    In today’s hyperconnected world, our graduates at some point will be exposed to people and ideas they find foreign, difficult to understand, or outright disagreeable.

    Learning how to engage with such people and worldviews is one of the most essential skills we can teach.

    And who will teach them if not us?

    The fundamentally dual role of the academy, as servant and as critic, is more essential now, I would argue, than ever.

    That is why I want Michigan to be known as a place where mutual respect does not require agreement, where differences of perspective are treated with sensitivity, and where we all become advocates for, and experts in, civil discourse.

    Absent such an environment, we diminish ourselves as scholars and students.

    We betray our commitment to discovery and truth.

    And we fail our children, our world, and ourselves.

    ***

    One of the great joys of devoting one’s life to the academy is to be surrounded by the optimism and energy of students. It’s palpable and it’s perennial.

    Whenever I have a bad day – those days when you wonder if you’ll ever push the boulder to the top of the hill – I take a break and stroll the campus.

    The enthusiasm of students, their resilience and sense of immortality, their passion and energy – it’s electrifying. Then I return to my office and feel like I can do anything.

    This is part of our mission. To believe we can do anything.

    To employ the power of ideas and our collective diversity of experience to solve important problems and strengthen lives and communities.

    To challenge, and be challenged, with our heads and with our hearts, to lead and be the best.

    To be Michigan, an exceptional global public university, where learning transforms lives and promotes economic progress, and where we pursue together understanding and discovery that will change the world.

    Thank you. And Go Blue!