1. Remarks at 2016 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium

    January 18, 2016

    Thank you, Rob, for the kind introduction and for all of your work and dedication
    to our university.

    I’d also like to thank everyone for joining us in one of the nation’s largest celebrations
    of Dr. King’s life and work.

    It’s an honor to be here for the University of Michigan’s 30th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

    Our university is a place where traditions live and thrive, with influence that spans decades, unites generations, and enlightens our nation.

    This symposium is one such tradition at the University of Michigan. It gives us the cherished opportunity to come together as an academic community — students, faculty, staff, graduates, friends and retirees — to discuss important ideas and issues regarding race, inclusion and justice, and embrace the core of our mission to serve society.

    I want to express my utmost gratitude to the faculty, students and staff across our campus who have made the symposium so special, including: The University of Michigan Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium Planning Committee, The Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, our special guest, Nontombi Naomi Tutu, and the individuals throughout our campus who are holding events as part of this symposium.

    In inquiring “Who Will Be Next?” to lead in the quest for civil rights, the theme statement for this year’s symposium issues a challenge.

    “The challenge today,” it poses, “is less about who will lead us and more about how will we lead.”

    The statement expresses an idea that applies to all of us at the U-M.

    It says, “We can all be vital allies in the fight for social justice. We all have talents, skills, thoughts and ideas to contribute to solutions for today’s pressing social justice issues.”

    I whole-heartedly agree.

    This passion for discovering solutions to vexing challenges has been a hallmark of U-M for nearly 200 years.

    And in recent months, we have worked together – faculty, students and staff – to make significant progress in our effort to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion at U-M.

    In response to students, we announced last month that we will build a new multicultural center on Central Campus.

    Our Diversity Summit in November brought together thousands of individuals from within our community and beyond.

    This past fall, we enrolled the most racially diverse freshman class on our Ann Arbor campus since 2005.

    We have launched two new initiatives –Wolverine Pathways and the HAIL scholarship program – that are designed to help us recruit talented students from communities of all different types throughout the state.

    We know there is much more work to do, and I especially want to invite the students here today to get involved. Strategic plans for diversity, equity and inclusion are taking shape in each of our schools, colleges and administrative units.

    Students can get involved directly in their schools and colleges through the people who are coordinating the planning. The list is available online.

    We want as many students involved as possible. Every voice and every point of view at the University of Michigan is important.

    We are engaging in this work during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history.

    Millions of refugees have fled civil war in Syria and instability elsewhere around the globe, bringing controversy around the issue of asylum right here to communities in Michigan.

    Terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere have killed and injured innocent people, and to make matters even worse, have been followed by Islamophobia here and abroad.

    Shootings of unarmed civilians during encounters with law enforcement have ripped communities apart.

    And racial strife on college campuses has exposed festering wounds and inspired students to protest.

    These are all difficult issues that we can only address by coming together as a community. By engaging in meaningful dialogue that is informed by our highest values and aspirations as human beings and members of a thoughtful academic community. By rising above the false dichotomies and the absolutist terms that pervade so much of the commentary around big issues.

    Too often, a willingness to compromise our values follows acts of terrorism here or abroad.

    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.

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

    For instance, some members of our university community, Muslim, Arab, and North African students in particular, have faced hateful messages following the recent terror attacks.

    Some have felt that our community is not welcoming, or is even hostile, to people of color, that Michigan students don’t all have an equal opportunity to thrive on our campus. We’ve heard this from African-American, Asian-American and other members of our community.

    I am proud that organizations including the Black Student Union are helping us work constructively to live up to our highest values.

    We cannot reach our full potential as a university when there are many among us who are experiencing our community this negatively. We must do better, and we will.

    Racism and discrimination have no place on our college campuses.

    As the theme statement for this symposium says, I hope we can work as one community in the fight for social justice.

    The great journalist and University of Michigan alumnus Eugene Robinson addressed the idea of pursuing justice together in a column he wrote recently about the standoff in Oregon.

    “Justice is supposed to be blind. Race, ethnicity and religion are not supposed to matter,” he wrote. “Yet we’re constantly reminded that these factors can make the difference between justifiable and unjustifiable killing — and between life and death.”

    Robinson continued by sharing his aspiration for how we can move forward – and it is fits very well with the theme statement I mentioned earlier.

    “What I want is that African Americans, Latino Americans, Muslim Americans and other “outsiders” be seen as the Americans we are. What I want is acknowledgment that we, too, have a stake in our democracy and its future course.

    “What I want is the recognition that no one can “take back” the country — which happens to be led by its first African American president — because it belongs to me as much as to you.”

    Thank you very much.

    It is now my pleasure to introduce two outstanding students.

    First, Grace Adofoli who in a moment will introduce our keynote speaker. Grace is a master’s student in both Social Work and Public Health.

    She co-chairs the Graduate African Student Association and has served on numerous social justice and human rights committees on and off campus. Her research and work focuses on global health disparities and human rights.

    Now, to introduce this morning’s special performance, I welcome Channing Mathews to the stage. Channing is a doctoral student in the combined program in Education and Psychology, where she studies the influence of racial identity on academic achievement.

    She serves as the president of Students of Color of Rackham, a graduate student organization that builds community and pursues social justice efforts for students at the University of Michigan and beyond. Please help me welcome, Channing Mathews.