As our nation grapples with questions over public funding of the arts and humanities, I wanted to share an excerpt of my full remarks from the University of Michigan’s 94th annual Honors Convocation this past Sunday.
Honors Convocation is our formal annual celebration of academic excellence, and combined with this year’s theme, “The Role of the University in Promoting Open-Mindedness,” the event helped me to reflect on the value of the arts and humanities to our mission and to one of the great moments in our history:
By opening our minds, the arts communicate broad perspectives and help us understand difference.
They teach us how to express ourselves.
They bring us together and inspire change.
They are – without a doubt – a public good.
The importance of the arts to American life and prosperity was first put forward as a policy right here on the University of Michigan campus in 1964.
In what would become known as the “Great Society” speech, President Lyndon Johnson’s U-M commencement speech challenged graduates to “elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”
He described our desire for beauty and community as goals that were fundamental to true prosperity, to educational excellence, and to justice.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic and former Detroit News journalist Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post: “Johnson did something unprecedented in American history: He put art, culture and beauty on the same footing as roads, rights, commerce and security. If you want to understand Johnson’s cultural agenda, you have to see it not as an appendage but integrally related to the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The agenda put forward in the Great Society speech created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Since their establishment in 1966, U-M faculty have received more than 500 grants from the NEA and NEH. This has added to our excellence and helped us become what I believe is the best public university in the world.
And while I believe we should always welcome discussions about how we steward a public investment in the arts, we should not fail to honor what so clearly is a public good in America.
On that day in 1964, President Johnson’s Great Society speech harked back nearly 200 years: To the Declaration of Independence and to those unalienable rights that gave birth to our nation.
He reminded us that the purpose of protecting life and liberty was to allow our people to fully engage in the pursuit of happiness.
He declared that, “our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation.”
He expressed a hope that our nation would always be “a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the [human] race.”
As the president of a public university, I hope that we will always remember these foundational American values.
And as a member of the University of Michigan’s community of scholars, I hope we will always value open-mindedness, and that we will work together to uphold Johnson’s idea, that a “Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”
I believe the arts and humanities are essential to U-M’s academic excellence, as they help us learn how to communicate broad perspectives and understand difference. They complete each of the great qualities of our university: research, teaching, learning, and service.
On Sunday, our community experienced these ideas first-hand. Our deans and representatives from our three campuses presented their highest-achieving students. We heard wonderful performances from students and watched with pride and joy as U-M’s top Angell Scholars crossed the Hill Auditorium stage – the same venue that has featured so many world-class performances and meaningful individuals over the decades.
The full video of our 94th annual Honors Convocation, featuring performances and remarks from students and faculty, is available on our YouTube Channel.