1. Remarks at Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Keynote Memorial Lecture

    January 19, 2015

    Note: As prepared for delivery

    Thank you Rob for the kind introduction and all of your great work for the campus. I’d also like to thank everyone for coming to join us today.

    It’s an honor to be here and a pleasure to see so many people at the University of Michigan’s 29th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

    This Symposium has become one of the university’s most cherished traditions, and one of the nation’s largest celebrations of Dr. King’s life and work.

    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,
    • and the working groups in many of our campus units who are contributing with events of their own all across the University today.

    All of you have ensured that our entire community can share a meaningful examination of Dr. King’s legacy and its ongoing relevance to the important issues that we must continue to confront as a society.

    I hope everyone here this morning can attend this year’s remaining events.

    Last evening I attended the annual Life Sciences Orchestra winter concert. The program was entitled Triumph of the Human Spirit in honor of Dr. King.

     

    And today is our annual youth day event in the Modern Languages building directly behind Hill Auditorium.

    That event will continue until 3 p.m.

    It is coordinated by Dr. Henry Meares in the School of Education.

    I also thank today’s featured guest,
    Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, for his unwavering commitment to engage the people of our nation
    in important discussions of race and justice.

    The events of the past year have reinforced just how essential these discussion continue to be.

    The tragic losses of Michael Brown, Eric Garner,
    and Tamir Rice have exposed societal tensions
    and further torn the unhealed wounds of racial discrimination in America.

    A couple years ago when I was at Brown University, I had the opportunity to host Congressman John Lewis, who represents most of Atlanta in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Representative Lewis was on campus to receive
    an honorary doctorate for, among his many accomplishments, his courage and leadership
    in the Civil Rights Movement, his dedication
    to protecting human rights, and his commitment to public service.

    I will always remember his words to our graduates that day:

    “When we see something that is not right, that is not fair, or just, we have a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to stand up and speak out – and find a way to get in the way.”

    At the age of 25, Lewis was the head of the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee and helped lead hundreds of non-violent protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

    As they were marching to Montgomery to call for voting rights in the state, they were attacked by police in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

    Representative Lewis knew Dr. King, and that day at Brown he also reminded our graduates of one of Dr. King’s most stirring messages:

    “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.”

    While there is still much pain from wounds that have yet to heal, and so much work to do to realize the dream of Dr. King, individuals like John Lewis also remind us that there is hope.

    I am hopeful because the events of this Symposium demonstrate that the University of Michigan can bring together leading voices to examine and confront difficult issues.

    With our prominence and commitment as an academic community, we can honor the work and sacrifice of Dr. King and learn from the tragedies that threaten to tear us apart as a nation.

    We can do that as colleagues, as educators, as students and as scholars, together, here in the same auditorium where Dr. King himself spoke in 1962.

    This commitment to learning and discovery is a hallmark of U-M.

    I know that many faculty members have embraced the Ferguson Syllabus hashtag movement on Twitter and engaged their students in meaningful discussions.

    The Ferguson Syllabus hashtag was created by a Georgetown professor, and it has sparked a nationwide conversation on how as educators we can teach lessons from Ferguson in our classrooms.

    At U-M, we are learning from our students, as well.

    It has been a year since members of the Black Student Union protested the university’s response to racial issues on Martin Luther King Day.

    The protest, along with the hashtag campaign #BBUM, or Being Black at U-M, shined new light on problems that have existed for decades.

    The University pledged a number of actions in response to the protest, and before I provide an update on some of those actions, I want to affirm my commitment to our ongoing work with the BSU.

    Last year’s protest in January took place shortly before my appointment as U-M’s next president was announced.

    As president, I am committed to confronting these challenges, in cooperation with the BSU, the Board of Regents, our faculty, students, staff, and many other members of our community – so we can create the diverse, welcoming and inclusive campus that lives up to the highest aspirations of our great university.

    The thoughtful and important activism by the BSU students – and their willingness to work together with campus leaders to better the university, is one of the most inspiring highlights of my early months at Michigan.

    I will always remember the moment last year, about a month after the protest, when students attended a regents meeting and sat in the front row with duct tape over their mouths.

    They were expressing dissatisfaction over their voices not being heard, of feeling marginalized and excluded.

    But this was Michigan. Written on the tape were the words, “Go Blue.”

    Despite their unhappiness, they wanted others to know that they love the university and were trying to make it better, not tear it down. I was proud.

    In discussions following the protests, the university committed to a number of actions, and I want to give a brief update on some of those items.

    We completed renovations of the Trotter Multicultural Center, while we work to identify new space for the center.

    The $650,000 renovation project greatly improved the facility, and I was pleased to visit the Trotter Center for its rededication and to meet with students there in September.

    Student Life implemented the Change It Up program in the fall for more than 4,000 first-year students, and the results are very promising.

    The program’s centerpiece is a workshop that develops students’ skills and confidence when intervening in situations that negatively affect individuals and the campus climate.

    It’s fully interactive and uses actors to portray realistic situations that students may encounter.

    96 percent of participants said they felt confident that they had the skills necessary to intervene in a harmful situation after completing Change It Up.

    The program additionally led to significant gains in confidence and in students’ feeling that they have a responsibility to act when they encounter harmful situations.

    Change It Up will be repeated in the fall for new
    first-year students, and already some of our schools and colleges are working to implement the workshops for graduate students.

    Last year during the protest, BSU student
    Robert Greenfield referenced the “unfinished business” of the Black Action Movement at U-M.

    As Dr. King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

    I agree that we have much more work to do …

    … to recruit a broadly diverse community of students, faculty and staff,

    … to ensure that every voice is respected and all viewpoints are welcome,

    … and to develop a supportive climate inside and outside the classroom that will allow diversity to truly flourish and contribute to the best possible learning environment at our great university.

    Many individual colleges and departments have developed partnerships to improve student diversity, and our campus has introduced important changes in recent years.

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

    Next month, we will be taking another step to address these issues.

    I am convening a Leadership Breakfast on Diversity to both talk about a pathway forward and to listen to individuals who have, in many cases, devoted years of work to improving diversity and the climate on our campus.

    This discussion will help to inform the campus-wide strategic planning process we are undertaking, with encouragement and support from the Board of Regents, to improve diversity and campus climate.

    If you want to send us your thoughts or suggestions in this regard, I invite you to send them to me.

    There is an email link at the bottom of my web page .

    We face many challenges as a campus, but we look forward to addressing them, together, with our students, faculty, staff, and everyone in the Michigan family.

    Thank you very much, and now it is my pleasure to welcome our next speaker to the stage.

    Amber Williams is a master’s student in our schools of Social Work and Education and an intern at our National Center for Institutional Diversity.

    She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology and women’s studies from the University of Michigan in 2010.

    Please help me welcome, Amber Williams.