The University of Michigan Honors Convocation
April 20, 2005
President Mary Sue Coleman
Good afternoon and welcome to this magnificent space!
It is wonderful to see so many Honors students assembled along with family and friends.
All of us are proud of the superb work these students have undertaken, which we are recognizing today.
This is my first Honors Convocation in Hill Auditorium and perhaps yours, also. Not many universities can boast such a celebrated hall, which has just been renovated to restore it to its original splendor.
Those of you who were at the Honors Convocation last year can attest that this setting is a bit more glorious than Arenaeven though we love that place, too!
I discovered a great deal about the history of Hill Auditorium during the massive renovation work.
I learned that the principal goal of the acoustics design was to have the President of the University be able to stand on the stage and be clearly heard. Certainly that goal has been accomplished!
But much more significantly, as I studied the design of this great hall, I could see first-hand the historic aspirations of the University of Michigan. The visionary leaders of our University wanted to create a splendid gathering space that would bring the best students in the world into contact with the most brilliant lecturers and musicians in the world.
This architecture represents the ideals of our founders. However, architecture alone is just a shell. Our studentsand this ceremonyprovide the confirmation that their dreamsand oursfor a world-class university have been realized through the decades.
I have a question I want our outstanding students to consider todayhave we challenged you enough? More importantly, have you challenged this university enough? And are you ready to go out and challenge the world?
This question is more important than ever before. Being able to challenge people, institutions, and policies in an informed manner is growing more complex every day.
What makes the environment of universities so intense is the unfettered intellectual exchange between faculty and students. Our students arrive here to learn from facultybut quickly find out that we expect students to dispute existing theories and ideas.
The unique nature of an academic community relies upon the expectation that everyone will be a contributorthat iconoclastic ideas are encouragedthat all knowledge is in a constant state of flux, contingent upon new data, new discoveries, new ideas.
The boundaries between producing and consuming knowledge have become exceedingly blurred. We are reminded of this by our commencement speaker for this semester, one of our celebrated Michigan graduatesthe former chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation, John Seely Brown.
He tells us that, in the past, we thought that authorities produced knowledge, and that students were the consumers of knowledge, with a definite boundary between them.
But in today’s world, all of us are both producers and consumers.
For example, you can buy a book from Amazon, but you can also write a small review of that same book, which could influence other consumers.
There is a constant cycle between production and consumption, and it extends to almost every venue of information.
This cycle has a profound impact on our ability to encourage informed freedom of expression, but as members of this academic community, we have a great responsibility to assure this freedom.
We tend to view our freedomsof expression, and of speechas our rights.
But I hope you have come to realize that these freedoms are treasures that each one of us has a special duty to protect.
I am not just talking about preserving your right to your own individual expressionwe also have an obligation to assure that all voices are heard.
Often, when we talk about freedom of expression, we talk about “tolerance” of views that differ from our own. Certainly, tolerance is important in the university community, in our society, and in the world.
Perhaps we need it now, more than ever.
But I want to tell you today that it is not enough for you to “tolerate” the views of others. You need to engage with those views; to discuss them; to debate them; to challenge them; and, sometimes, to let them change your mindand to accept them.
Tolerance is critical, but it is static and isolated. Engagement, in contrast, is dynamic and interactive.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that freedom of speech “is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” Great universities are the laboratories in which this experiment is conducted according to its highest and best protocols.
And we want our students to engage fully in this experiment, because it plays an essential role in their individual education and in the collective energy of the campus.
But if we are only tolerant, and not engaged, then we face the risks of complacency, self-satisfaction, and intellectual paralysis.
And that is the crux of the issue for me. Our first amendment rights, and our freedom of expression, require us to be engaged in civil discourse and informed debate.
In his book Republic.com, the First Amendment scholar Cass Sunstein warns us about the dangers of becoming less fully informed even as we have access to more information than ever before.
He proposes that as our digital world provides us more opportunity to select individual news sources, and to design our own personalized news services that deliver us only the news we choose to see each day, we filter out opinions that are not like our own.
When we choose not to listen, we become less likely to consider opposing views or current data.
There is a real danger that we will lose the spirit of debate in the public square, and close the doors to learning something we had not previously considered.
I grow very concerned when it appears that the polarization of viewpoints creates situations where opposing minds do not even want to communicate.
A few minutes ago, the Provost referred to a recent study about high school students and their perception of freedom of speech.
This report has received substantial attention from the presswith good reason, given that the press has the most to lose from the results of this study.
Last week, I was reviewing this same report, issued by the Knight Foundation. It should cause all of us to be concerned.
A surprising and alarming number of students were willing to turn over some significant freedoms to government control, because they have a basic lack of understanding of our First Amendment rights.
For example, only 51% of the students believed that newspapers should be able to publish freely, without government approval of stories. That means that almost half of the students surveyed believe that some form of government control is useful.
But on the other hand, most students believed that musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive70% supported that idea.
But only 58% thought that students themselves should have the right to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities.
Think about thisfreedom of expression in music far outweighed the need for freedom of expression in the press.
Butwe all know we will not find our future freedoms exclusively in i-Pods.
The hopeful aspect of this report is that students, when provided with more education and discussion about their personal freedoms, begin to see the connection of their own freedom to the freedom of the press.
A quotation included in the report summarizes the problem: “The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democratic society. Unfortunately, young people don’t live it enough. It becomes like the granite monument in the park that we never visit.”
Todayand every dayI ask you: Do not let our democratic freedoms turn into that granite monument. Make sure that your own views are alive, that you communicate them clearly, and that you assure all points of view are heard.This involves challenges to authority that may be strenuous, but can also be extraordinarily rewarding.
One of the best examples of a Michigan graduate who faced very challenging days in support of freedom of expression was Arthur Miller, the inspired playwright whom we proudly claim as one of our most prominent graduates. His death last month is a loss to our nation and world, but his legacy will continue to thrive, especially at this university.
It was a tremendous privilege to welcome Mr. Miller to our campus last year, and to see his continued delight in the theater and the world of ideas.
He was deeply dedicated to the idea that each individual has a profound moral responsibility for ethical behavior, even when that behavior might conflict with prevailing politics.
During the time of the hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950s, he conceived the idea of writing a play about modern-day witch-hunting, by using the analogy of the Salem witch trials of the 1600s.
He told us, by the way, that he first learned about those trials in his American History course at the University of Michigan.
All around him, he saw careers ruined and friendships betrayed because of the intense political pressure of that time.
But against much advice, he went on to write “The Crucible,” a wrenching depiction of the results of deception and mass hysteria. Ultimately, Miller himself was put on trial and sentenced by the federal government.
There is a passage in “The Crucible” that we should consider, and bear in mind as we proceed in our own pursuit of free expression.
A devastating moment in the play occurs when one of the characters describes the death of one of the accused, a man who would not give false testimony, even as he was put to death by being weighed down with heavy stones.
He was asked to give false testimony, and all he would say were the words: “More weight.”
How many of us, faced with our own breaking points, would ask for “more weight”? Arthur Miller did, by his actions and his art. That is his legacy, and the reason he will live on.
We, the members of the Michigan academic community, must have the courage to assure freedom of expression. Every day, each of us must make an active commitment to these principles, whether we seek freedom of the press, of our beliefs, or evenof our music!
Because if we do notwho will?
I want to close by extending special thanks and honor to one of our former Thurnau Professors: our Provost, Paul Courant, who has just announced his intention to return to our community as a full-time faculty member. I want us to celebrate his own commitment to the life of the mind, his openness to invigorating ideas of all kinds, and his dedication to the students of the University of Michiganto whom he is returning with joy and inspiration. He has truly served our university with Honor.Thank you, Paul.
We are celebrating youour studentstoday. We have great hope in your ability to take on this responsibility to challenge the worldand it is our challenge to prepare you for that job. We are sending you forth from this splendid hall that reminds us of the dreams of our intellectual ancestors and our own hope for the future.
I congratulate all of you today, for your accomplishments, and for deciding to pursue your lives at Michigan! Go forward from this place to challenge me, our university, and the worldand Go Blue!