New Faculty Orientation
August 30, 2006
I hope that in your first days here at the University, you have found time to wander through the Diag and the heart of our campus.
It’s really a remarkable place, because it provides a kind of space unlike anywhere else at the University. The Diag is a place to relax, to demonstrate, to teach, and to socialize. For all its energy, it also is an oasis from the classroom or office. It has an almost mythical status with alumni, because it is that one place that all students share.
And it all underfolds under trees that have sheltered Michigan students and faculty for decades.
Those trees were the contribution of Andrew White, one of the first members of the Michigan faculty and a professor of history and English literature. He found the University’s original 40 acres—today’s Diag—to be, in his words, “unkempt and wretched.” And so he began to plant saplings of elm and evergreen. He created walkways and a quiet sense of order. His students joined him in this work, and as time went by the Diag became a lush, vibrant park.
As faculty, you have a similar role at Michigan. Not to find yourself on your hands and knees on the Diag, but rather to plant the seeds of ideas in your students and watch what develops.
Michigan students are remarkable at all levels, from the freshmen we welcome at tomorrow’s New Student Convocation to graduate students and post-docs. And they are eager for the knowledge you can impart and nurture within them.
You will see your students grow in profound and unimaginable ways. They will stretch their minds and develop branches of thought and arguments that lean in new directions. And they will always look to you, as their teachers, their mentors and their source of inspiration.
They are very fortunate with the new scholars joining our faculty today.
You number some 500 hundred, and come to Michigan from universities as nearby as Detroit and as distant as Germany and Taiwan. You have trained at the world’s most prestigious institutions: Harvard, Berkeley, Emory, Carnegie Mellon and, of course, Michigan.
You are tenured professors like Michael Awkward, a leading scholar of African-American literary and cultural studies who joins the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Dr. Awkward began his career here, and we are thrilled to welcome him back.
You are new assistant professors like Sandra Momper, who brings to the School of Social Work her knowledge of Native American life and her research into the effects of casino gambling on Native American mothers and their children.
You are lecturers like Melvyn Levitsky, who served President Clinton as an ambassador to Brazil and President Reagan as ambassador to Bulgaria. He will share his 35 years of experience in the diplomatic corps with students at the Ford School of Public Policy.
You are assistant research professors like Kate Carroll, who joins the Life Sciences Institute to explore sulfur metabolism and its potential for biomedical applications.
As a group, your expertise ranges from serving as principal investigator on NASA’s Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter Mission and excavating ancient Greek cities, to founding your own dance company and researching international sex work and AIDS.
Sustaining the superior intellectual work of Michigan is my top priority as president, and your decision to join our faculty tells me we continue to grow as an exceptional research university.
You are a remarkably diverse community of scholars who are going to enrich not only your students, but also your peers. And not just peers in your department or your school, but colleagues throughout the University, because we are an institution that believes in academic work that crosses boundaries.
In fact, we expect it, this cross-pollination of ideas and approaches. Our academic energy lies in our passion for cross-disciplinary work. We have amazing resources and talents, and I want to see even more exchanging of ideas and approaches—in the laboratory, and especially in the classroom.
I want to see the University truly be engaged with the world around us. We absolutely must find ways to take the work we do on campus and put it into motion in our communities, our schools, our statehouses, and our corporate boardrooms. I always want society to be able to turn to Michigan for solutions. This has never been more important than in our great state, which is working to transform its economy for the 21st century.
As a university, we absolutely must widen our doors so that students from all backgrounds can take advantage of what we have to offer here. A great public university can do nothing less for society. We must continue to make diversity at Michigan real, and we work hard at it every day. I want it known that we are a university that is welcoming, inspiring and nurturing to all students.
There is that word again—nurturing. Professor White, the scholar who turned the Diag into the park it is today, knew well the immense implications of planting the smallest trees. Great ideas take root, and you as faculty have the knowledge and the commitment for growing tomorrow’s leaders.
Those leaders include alumni who have changed the world with their inventions, their cures, their discoveries and their words. But before their fame and success, they were students, engaging with their professors in classrooms and laboratories overlooking the Diag.
You should know that after teaching at Michigan, Andrew Dickson White returned to his home state of New York, where he co-founded Cornell University and became its first president.
He was also a New York state senator, an ambassador to Germany, and a minister to Russia. Over the course of his life, he met with eight American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. He knew Germany’s Bismarck, Russia’s Tolstoy, and France’s Pasteur.
And yet when he wrote his extensive autobiography and reflected on his life’s travels, Andrew White returned to the University of Michigan and the students he taught. He wrote: “I have never, in the whole course of my life, enjoyed my work so much as this.”
It is my fondest hope that you enjoy just as grand an experience as a Michigan faculty member.
Welcome, again, to the University of Michigan.