20th Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium


Good morning! Thank you, Lester, for your tireless work in making our campus a better place for all students and faculty.

I want to welcome everyone who has joined us for the University’s 20th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

I especially want to extend a warm U-M welcome to our keynote speaker this morning, Kweisi Mfume. His work as a member of Congress and as president of the NAACP has moved us forward as a nation, and we welcome his message today.

Earlier this month, our nation said goodbye to President Gerald Ford, who was as proud of graduating from Michigan as we were of him.

President Ford’s eulogists hailed him for his courage in pardoning Richard Nixon following the Watergate crisis. It was a terribly unpopular decision but also a brave one, and one that many historians now agree was the right choice for our country.

We should also pause to remember the courageous steps Gerald Ford took to open the doors of opportunity to all people.

As a congressman, he voted against the poll tax and for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that Dr. King worked so hard to see become reality.

As president, Gerald Ford was the first Republican to appoint an African-American to the Cabinet. He opened our country’s military academies to women.

And as a former president, he spoke in favor of racial justice and the role of affirmative action in advancing our country’s universities and colleges.

President Ford knew what happens when the doors to advancement are closed because of a person’s skin color, or ethnic heritage, or family income.

As a U-M senior, he was outraged when his good friend Willis Ward, a teammate on the football squad and his roommate on road games, became the subject of controversy … not because of a broken play or a missed pass, but because he was black.

A visiting team, Georgia Tech, said it would not play Michigan if Willis Ward, U-M’s only black player, took the field. Jerry Ford, Michigan’s most valuable player, was so disgusted he threatened to quit.

Jim Crow was at the doorway of Michigan Stadium.

Willis Ward did not play against Georgia Tech, and he talked his friend into remaining on the team.

Young Gerald Ford saw firsthand how devastating it can be for a person to be shut out. It was a moment he never forgot.

Sixty-five years later, when the U-M was defending its admissions policies before the U.S. Supreme Court, President Ford was one of our strongest advocates for affirmative action.

“I don’t want future college students,” he said, “to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation.”

President Ford was terribly proud of the gains made at Michigan since his days as a student. But he knew, as we all do, that there is much more work to be carried out before we can rest.

I want to continue that work, for President Ford and for all of those students, faculty and alumni who want a Michigan education to be the finest in America.

Today we honor Martin Luther King Jr. and the invaluable contributions that came from his relentless work.

My favorite resource about Dr. King is Taylor Branch’s remarkable trilogy – Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge – that chronicles these times.

It was a troubling and violent era that many of us lived through. These books provide compelling insight into the fierce struggle and danger that Dr. King and so many others confronted.

Ultimately, these works are a study about hope and perseverance even in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Because of the sacrifices of many, we are a more open society today and opportunity abounds for students of all backgrounds. It may have been the sacrifice of not dressing for a college football game, or of laying down one’s life on a Memphis motel balcony.

We are all stronger for it. But we cannot become complacent, because we face a new challenge.

Our recent decision as a university to no longer consider race or gender when reviewing admissions applications was forced by Proposal 2 and its constitutional limits on some forms of affirmative action, and it is a step we take with regret and caution.

But what is important for people to understand are the steps we can and will take to promote diversity at Michigan.

This new amendment in no way limits our pursuit of diversity. Indeed, it makes that pursuit more critical than ever.

And so we will continue to use more than 50 different factors when we review admissions applications. Our Number One consideration is always a student’s success in challenging coursework. Always. The U-M is known first and foremost for its academic excellence, and we will never stray from that core value. Every student admitted here is highly qualified.

We are equally dedicated to building a student body that is an exciting and interesting mix of individuals who each bring something unique to our university.

We do not want only students with perfect grade point averages. We want strong grades, of course, but we want something more. We want students who represent and reflect the richness of the world we explore as a university, and we remain fully committed to keeping the doors of opportunity open for all.

And so we look at a student’s family history – we want students who are either the first in their family to go to college or others who are the fourth generation to attend Michigan.

We want writers and artists, musicians and dancers.

We want students who have grown up in urban areas like Flint and Detroit or in rural communities like Newberry in the Upper Peninsula.

We want students who are Croatian or Canadian … students who speak six languages or have lived in six countries … students whose parents have struggled to provide for them, or whose parents run America’s corporations.

We want a mosaic of students and we will always work to attain such diversity, affirmative action or not, because it is the right thing to do as a great public university committed to academic excellence.

We will continue our many outreach programs to attract new students. These include a partnership to attract students from Michigan’s community colleges and a federally supported initiative to increase the number of minority graduates in science, technology, math and engineering.

We will continue all of our offices and programs that support diversity, including our successful ADVANCE program that began with a federal grant to recruit and retain women faculty in science and engineering.

We will honor all of our existing financial aid commitments to students at all levels. And we will uphold our pledge to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of all Michigan resident undergraduates.

There is a tremendous amount of hard work ahead of us in the era of Proposal 2. Our symposium theme this year is “Building the Beloved Community.” Building is demanding work, but I have never known Michigan students, faculty or staff to back away from a challenge.

We need to remember the words of Dr. King when he said:

“The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions.”

An open, tolerant society does not occur without institutions that lead. Our university is known as a national leader for diversity in higher education, and we will not shirk from that role.

I am ready to move forward, and I ask you to join me.

Together, we need to tell the college students of tomorrow that Michigan should be their first choice for an exceptional education.

Please carry a message to the students of your hometowns, your high schools, and your undergraduate schools.

That message is simple: We want you.

We want students to aspire to attend U-M.

We want students to apply to U-M, and we want them to know we will review their entire file. Each and every student will be evaluated fairly, as we have always done at Michigan.

And when those students are accepted, we want them to enroll and join our remarkable community, a community that inspires future presidents and produces students who are known throughout the world for their leadership and their academic merit.

As we start this new year and honor Dr. King, let us pledge to work harder than ever to create a student body that mirrors the world around us and exemplifies the excellence that is equated with the University of Michigan.