1. Remarks at 2015 Winter Commencement

    December 20, 2015

    (As prepared for delivery) 

    I offer my heartfelt congratulations to U-M’s newest graduates as well as to their families and friends.

    Thank you all for joining us for this celebration of achievement.

    A Michigan degree is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Well done, Class of 2015!

    I would like to consider with you a large and important issue today.

    As a nation, we are struggling mightily with tensions in trying to balance our constitutional rights and shared values with our sense of safety, in our communities, on our campuses, and all the way to the level of national security.

    I chose this topic because it is fundamental to things we hold dear as educated members of society:

    It is the question of how we treat freedoms when there are real or perceived threats to our safety.

    To begin, I invite you to reflect on words written by one of the University of Michigan’s most distinguished graduates:

    “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.”

    Those words are spoken by the character of Deputy Governor Danforth in the Tony Award winning play, The Crucible.

    It was, of course, written by the great Arthur Miller, a 1938 U-M alumnus who would have turned 100 years old this past October.

    The only theater that bears his name in the world sits on our own North Campus.

    Miller’s play uses the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century as a powerful allegory to the Red Scare during the Cold War in mid-20th century America.

    The Red Scare is widely regarded to be one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

    The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time, Earl Warren, said that if the Bill of Rights had been put to a vote, it probably would have been defeated.

    It was a time when the fear of communism devolved into witch-hunts.

    When a U.S. senator named Joseph McCarthy and members of the House of Representatives abused their powers in the name of rooting out un-American Activities.

    When American citizens were hauled in before Congress to be questioned about their political views, their associations, and their colleagues and friends.

    When the penalty for refusing to name names was blacklisting or even jail.

    The list of those persecuted included Lucille Ball, W.E.B. Dubois, Aaron Copland, Dalton Trumbo and Arthur Miller.

    Also attacked were college professors, members of the military, Nobel Prize winners and even strippers.

    You were considered either with the Communists or against them, and if you were a Communist, you were automatically considered a threat to public safety and no longer guaranteed the fundamental protections of our Constitution.

    There was no road between.

    Although punishment for one’s beliefs is antithetical to the mission of the academy where we espouse the values of academic, intellectual and expressive freedoms in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, many campuses succumbed to the scare-mongering and demagoguery of the McCarthy Era.

    The University of Michigan unfortunately was no exception.

    The hysteria of the Red Scare reared its head, right here, on the Michigan campus.

    And we made a mistake.

    We did this despite being armed with the warning presented in The Crucible.

    The year was 1954, the year after the debut of Miller’s play.

    Three tenured U-M professors were questioned by a Congressional subcommittee about their political sympathies and about those with whom they associated.

    All three refused to answer questions.

    Professor Chandler Davis cited the First Amendment, in his refusal.

    Professors Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson pleaded the Fifth Amendment, the protection against self-incrimination. The First and the Fifth Amendments are bedrock principles of the American constitution and our justice system – two of the rights our nation was founded upon.

    But during the Red Scare, silence, along with the invoking of Constitutional rights, was considered an admission of guilt.

    All three professors were immediately suspended by the University.

    What happened next on campus is painful to hear about. But it also provides an opportunity to extract a lesson of great relevance today.

    The university launched its own investigation, with various proceedings involving the administration and faculty.

    The issue being evaluated was not the limits of academic freedom, nor competence in teaching and research, but a quality referred to as “academic integrity.”

    Former U-M history professor David Hollinger, in writing about the events, explained that it was “possession of ‘intellectual integrity’ that … entitled individual faculty to academic freedom.

    If it could be shown that a given colleague lacked this quality, the obligation to defend that colleague’s academic freedom disappeared.”

    And “to be a communist was to betray ‘intellectual integrity.’”

    Markert was found to have “intellectual integrity” because he ultimately answered questions in the university investigation that he’d refused to address in his congressional appearance. He was reinstated.

    The U-M investigating committee, and a subsequent faculty appeals committee, recommended the dismissal of Davis and the retention of Nickerson.

    Both were fired by the administration.

    This was a horrible mistake.

    In 1954, the university ignored both constitutional rights and long-held academic values.

    Chandler Davis would later be convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to six months in prison. He is now an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto.

    Arthur Miller was convicted of the same offense after he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities two years later.

    He had also refused to name names.

    His conviction, like many others, was later overturned upon appeal.

    As members of the University of Michigan Class of 2015, I hope you can do better than our community did in 1954.

    I hope you can apply the lessons learned from the mistakes made by both our nation and our university during the McCarthy Era.

    It seems as if every problem we confront these days is debated in absolutist terms, pitting rights, freedoms and values against a desire for safety, creating false dichotomies that one must be either for or against.

    And too often, a willingness to compromise our values follows tragedy, whether it is a mass shooting by terrorists or the plight of millions of refugees around the globe.

    Graduates, there is no shortage of opportunity to stand up for freedoms and values in the modern world…

    To demonstrate that we can disagree without demonizing and debate without demagoguery …

    The United Nations estimates that more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria during its ongoing civil war.

    Their needs are the most basic known to humankind: Food. Shelter. Medicine.

    The terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere have killed and injured innocent people and irreparably changed lives in those communities and beyond.

    But while our shared values and protected rights give us the framework to thoughtfully address problems, fear can cause us to ignore or rationalize our way around these cherished principles.

    It happened with McCarthyism.

    It happened with the Internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. And now we are hearing proposals rooted in Islamophobia.

    History teaches us that moments such as these, these right now, are when we are most likely to bow to fear, to sacrifice our freedoms and rights in return for a perceived increase in safety and security.

    Instead of using our talent and creativity to propose, test and enact solutions consistent with our shared values, fear would have us violate religious freedom or target people of a particular ethnicity.

    It would have us favor persecution and intolerance above freedoms and rights.

    But history tells us another story too — that we can learn from mistakes.

    In late 1954, Joseph McCarthy was condemned in a vote by his U.S. Senate colleagues – and though he remained in office, his influence was greatly reduced.

    In 1988, President Ronald Reagan righted “a grave wrong,” in offering apologies and restitution to the Japanese-Americans interned.

    This year at the University of Michigan, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Davis, Markert and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

    The lecture was established by a U-M Faculty Senate resolution in 1990 with its purpose “to guard against a repetition of those events and to protect the fundamental freedoms of those who come after us.”

    I had the pleasure of attending this year’s lecture and meeting Professor Davis.

    Graduates, some of you will join the academy following today’s ceremony, and many of you will head off into careers where you may confront the most pressing problems we face as a society.

    All of you can use the breadth of your U-M education to help others explore issues from multiple perspectives, as you have in your classes and conversations here.

    You can elevate these important debates to a level that is substantive, far removed from demagoguery, to one that is worthy of the great investment you have made in your education.

    I view such acts of citizenship as important as any scholarly discovery, or any work of art.

    We need your thoughtful engagement, as graduates of the University of Michigan, as leaders and best, to carry these ideas forward.

    I implore you to help us find that road between, to always remember that our rights and freedoms are our most precious and vulnerable gifts,

    And to lead us to a better future as you go discover, go achieve, go serve, and Go Blue!