Note: As prepared for delivery
Friends, colleagues, students, staff, and members of the Michigan community, it is an honor to be here to present the 23rd Wallenberg Medal to tonight’s distinguished honoree, Agnes Heller.
I want to thank the members of the Wallenberg committee and all those who have established and now carry forward the proud Wallenberg legacy at the University of Michigan.
Raoul Wallenberg was one of the first alumni I learned about when I accepted this job, and I was pleased to be able to announce his Congressional Gold Medal at our Board of Regents meeting in July.
As a relative newcomer to this campus, I have been spending a lot of time getting to know the University, its history, its people – and its traditions.
What I have learned is that traditions have meaning here that few other universities can boast – and those traditions uphold the very highest values of excellence and impact.
Now, I was trained as a bioscientist, and as a result I always try to measure everything.
Traditions are no exception.
But like so much of what we do here, our traditions have scale and weight that is in a class by itself.
At the University of Michigan, traditions are measured in big, powerful terms – like lives saved,
generations inspired, and understanding increased across the full breadth of humanity.
They include a deep commitment to improving our world, and in this case, they are represented
in full measure by our heroic alumnus, Raoul Wallenberg.
His courage, and his legacy, bring into sharp focus how one person can make a tremendous impact in the lives of so many.
The Wallenberg Medal is one of Michigan’s finest traditions, and since 1990 it has become another example of the excellence of this university.
This year’s awardee is very fitting of both the tradition and the excellence of U of M.
Agnes Heller is a world-renowned academic, author and advocate for the oppressed, winning numerous awards for her scholarship in philosophy, and spending decades as a relentless defender of human rights – efforts that continue to this day.
She and her mother narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp that would take the life of her father.
Living through the darkness of the Holocaust has greatly influenced Dr. Heller’s body of work.
She has said that her first inquiry was to explore the sources of morality and evil.
The beginnings of that exploration led to a lifetime as an engaged scholar, with research over a broad spectrum of philosophy and political thought.
Her previous honors include the University of Copenhagen’s Sonning Prize, and the Goethe Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany. She is also a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Throughout her life, Dr. Heller has never wavered from her commitment to opposing totalitarianism, fiercely criticizing those who abuse power, and demanding that all voices be heard.
This has led to numerous personal and professional consequences.
Following the 1956 revolution in Hungary, the Soviet-backed government barred her from working in the academy, and she taught grammar school for a few years.
She left Hungary in exile in 1977 because of persecution for her dissent against the ruling Party.
But she always persevered in her scholarship and her defense of the oppressed.
Dr. Heller later served as a professor of philosophy and department chair at the New School for Social Research, eventually becoming the Hannah Arendt Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the New York campus.
More recently, she has spoken out about the Hungarian government’s systematic methods of exercising control over universities.
I said in my inaugural address that we must celebrate excellence at U of M.
This medal, along with the fellowship we created to carry forward the Wallenberg legacy, and the opportunity to hear from the world’s pre-eminent individuals are all great causes for celebration.
Now I ask you to please help me celebrate the 2014 Wallenberg Medalist, Agnes Heller.
Dr. Heller, will you please join me?
It is now my pleasure to introduce the moderator for tonight’s conversation.
Scott Spector, is a Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures; History; and Judaic Studies.
His primary scholarship focus is the cultural history of modern Central Europe, and like me, he earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.
Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Scott Spector.