Celebration of University History
Oct. 4, 2006
If the director of the Bentley is still discovering new and fascinating bits of University history after 30 years in the archives, you can only imagine how much I am learning as I begin my fifth year as president!
The University of Michigan is a remarkably complex and dynamic institution, given the depth of our research and the breadth of our academic programs. The bedrock of all this activity is our long and distinguished history which, whether most people on campus realize it, informs all that we are as a great public university.
That is why I am so pleased to be here today to not only honor our past and honor those who work hard to preserve an awareness of it, but also to consider the importance of that past to who we are and what we do.
In a few weeks, our university will host the Royal Shakespeare Company, and one of the plays to be performed is “The Tempest.” It is in that great play that Shakespeare declared, “What is past is prologue.”
There are several themes unique to our University’s past that also are very much part of our present, and will continue to shape the Michigan of tomorrow.
The first of these themes is the energy of ambition.
I have always been struck by the incredible energy and ambition in all sectors of this campus. It is really quite unusual. Of course it is due to the drive and creativity of all who are here. But it also has historical roots.
In 1817, Gabriel Richard, John Monteith, and Augustus Woodward gathered in the frontier town of Detroit to propose a university for the Michigan Territory.
In 1852, Henry Tappan arrived on a campus with seven buildings in Ann Arbor, a town of less than 2,000 inhabitants and where sheep outnumbered people four to one! In the midst of this wilderness he delivered his inaugural lecture in which he outlined his vision for the University of Michigan. The speech was 52 pages long and proposed schools, colleges, libraries, museums, and, of course, an observatory.
That speech of 154 years ago is a marvelous, and precise, description of the University of Michigan that we know today.
The roots of our ambitions begin in our earliest days and persist over time through the work of the College of Engineering; the School of Music, Theatre and Dance; the School of Natural Resources and Environment; the League and the Union—some of the units that we honor today for preserving and promoting knowledge of their chapters in this larger story.
This determined ambition is part of the fabric of this place, and we should always recognize and celebrate it.
So too is the quest for intellectual exploration that has long been a hallmark of the University.
In preparing the historical marker text for the “Central Forty and the Diag,” which will be placed in the center of campus, the Committee on History and Traditions wanted readers to reflect on all those who had walked the same paths since the University arrived in Ann Arbor in 1837.
It is not just that John Dewey was here … that Gerald Ford was here … or Thomas Cooley … Jessye Norman … Elizabeth Eisenstein … Angus Campbell … Henry Carter Adams … Robert Frost … Margaret Bourke White … Thomas Francis … Victor Vaughn—just to name a few influential in their chosen fields.
It is the collective force of their intellectual energies that has advanced and sustained the University of Michigan as an institution of great ideas.
A third thread that runs through our great history is the pursuit of diversity. The walking tour that we are unveiling today marks two events—two moments among many—in the history of diversity at Michigan.
One relates to the gift of lands in 1817 from three Native American communities to the early territorial university of Michigania. The second marks the admission of women to the University in 1870. Both represent milestones that were exceptional in the culture of their time.
U-M presidents from Henry Tappan forward have pushed to define this university as one that is open to all. That includes the embrace of Native American communities in the early 19th century; the openness to admitting women; and the continuous encouragement of applicants of all backgrounds. It includes welcoming African-American students in the 1850s and establishing scholarships for Asian women in the early 20th century. And the list goes on.
So we gather today to honor events, to mark historic buildings, and to celebrate activities that foster a historical understanding of our University.
The History and Traditions Committee helps make this possible. So, too, do those individuals and units that we honor today. You are helping to instill in our students, faculty and staff the essence of our past, so that we all may more fully understand the true significance of this place.
Thank you all for your ongoing work to celebrate our history and make it useful for those who walk the campus today, and for those future generations who will walk along our same paths.