(as prepared for delivery)
I also want to thank all of you for coming to Ann Arbor for this important seminar and for currently serving or aspiring to serve as leaders in your academic communities.
One of the great traditions of the academy is scholars stepping up to serve their communities as departmental and college leaders.
Anne invited me here to share a president’s perspective on the role of the humanities at a public research university and their importance.
I also know that some of you attended a session this morning titled, and I quote: “Effective Communication with Upper Administration.”
As an old biology professor, now I can now imagine how the mouse felt before one of my experiments.
But my time as a chair, dean, provost and president has taught me that it’s a privilege to be on the hot seat.
So at the end of my talk, I will be happy to take questions so you can put what you learned into action.
But first, I want to take us back in time a bit.
To the 8th century.
“In the year 721, a young Buddhist monk named Hyecho set out from … the Korean peninsula, on what would become one of the most extraordinary journeys in history. Sailing first to China, Hyecho continued to what is today Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, before taking the Silk Road and heading back east.”
Those words are from the description of a book written by U-M Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies Donald Lopez, who was part of a project that, in some ways, was almost as groundbreaking as Hycheo’s journey itself.
The research for this project was the product of a novel forum for collaborative scholarship in the humanities that we hope will have implications for the future of how humanists approach complex topics and make their insights publicly accessible.
First, it allowed scholars to pursue their intellectual passions alongside others from different disciplines with complimentary skills and interests.
In addition to Dr. Lopez, the Hyecho’s Journey project brought together from U-M’s various departments: an art historian, an anthropologist, a librarian from our Asia Library, and three graduate students. Second, it resulted in knowledge gained from a new approach to the study of Buddhism.
Instead of the more traditional focus that traces the development of Buddhism as a movement away from an original center, the scholars report that the project viewed Buddhism as a network of interlocking traditions that cross national and cultural boundaries.
And third, the collaborative nature of this project makes its results more broadly available to the public through an App and an exhibition at the Smithsonian.
The mechanism that unleashed this scholarly achievement is a U-M initiative called the Humanities Collaboratory.
The Collaboratory began when our former Provost, Martha Pollack, asked a committee of colleagues in the humanities to consider how the university could support innovative types of humanities scholarship.
As a computer scientist and former dean of our School of Information, she understood that new tools could be used to open scholarly work to much broader audiences.
So after hearing from many faculty members across campus, she and vice provost and Professor of English Sara Blair worked to create an initiative that provided funding for projects that united faculty, librarians, curators, and students of all levels.
The Collaboratory allows scholars to experiment with collaborative, team-based approaches to humanities research.
One of the types of funding provided through the Collaboratory is for a team of faculty and students from different fields to work on a common project for up to two years, with a requirement that the results of the project are publicly disseminated.
Dr. Pollack is now the President of Cornell University, but her shared creation lives on here at Michigan.
What Heycho’s Journey illustrates most clearly to me is the creative potential of high quality collaborative humanistic scholarship at a research university.
Finding ways to enhance the impact of humanistic scholarship by tapping into the breadth of our academic community is a challenge throughout the academy.
While serving as provost at Brown, I led a campus-wide strategic planning process that included a mechanism to develop a handful of interdisciplinary research themes for major campus investment.
This process was open to everyone and produced outstanding ideas from diverse groups of scholars including engineers, natural scientists, social scientists and physicians. Despite our intense efforts, there were few proposals involving Brown’s outstanding humanists.
It felt like I was working against culture.
Here at Michigan, part of our mission calls for creating and preserving knowledge and understanding and communicating it to the public we serve.
One of my most important responsibilities as president is to create an environment where faculty can do their very best, most satisfying and important work — whether as lone scholars visiting an archive or as members of a diverse and multidisciplinary team.
I also want to help faculty who wish to focus their work outwardly towards the public we serve.
I believe that humanistic knowledge and inquiry is at the core of undergraduate education and can provide students with a toolbox for personal success and lifelong fulfillment regardless of what job or profession they head into.
It’s about learning how to read carefully, extract meaning from narrative, and see things simultaneously from multiple perspectives. It’s about writing well and communicating clearly and persuasively. It about the ability to identify and appreciate difference.
My courses in literature, Spanish, the philosophy of science, and American and Roman history as a college student at Princeton helped me better understand the stories my patients would tell me as a physician, helped me learn to be a better teacher, and not surprisingly, decades later, make me a better university president.
The humanities are about posing and trying to answer big fundamental questions about culture, ethics, democracy, and societal challenges, and learning to appreciate historical dependencies and context.
It’s looking into the unknown, peering around every corner, and using lenses we hadn’t previously considered.
It honestly puzzles me when members of the public or politicians question their value, or universities consider major cuts in support for the humanities.
I appreciate that not all colleges and universities have the scale and resources needed to make investments that will support large-scale multi-year collaborative humanities projects.
So I want to share an example of an initiative that stimulates collaborative research by leveraging much smaller amounts of funding.
I particularly like its potential to bring together researchers from very different disciplines, like the humanities and engineering, for instance.
It’s called M-Cubed.
Through this novel program, three faculty from at least two different campus units can form a collaborative trio, or “cube,” and tap into seed funding to advance their collaborative idea in real time.
One Cube involved professors of German Studies, computer science, information, and evolutionary biology.
The Cube also received additional funding from two foundations.
It employed a big-data approach to visualize and analyze German periodicals and major fiction from 1850 to 1914.
This is a corpus that was decades in the making, but thanks to digital humanities and the use of spatial analysis, we now have new ways of viewing and understanding significant literature.
The U of M’s mission states that we seek to develop leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.
I know that much of this ADE seminar’s agenda deals with diversity and leadership, so I want to briefly share some insights from the prominent social historian, Earl Lewis.
Earl was a faculty member in our history department and Dean of the Rackham Graduate School here at Michigan before going on to serve as Provost at Emory.
After completing his term as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation earlier this year, Dr. Lewis has rejoined our faculty to serve as director of the newly formed U-M Center for Social Solutions.
He gave the commencement address this past spring at Berea College, urging graduates to provide “morally anchored, value-centered leadership.”
As department chairs, you can provide the leadership we need to ensure that the qualities humanists care about in their scholarship and transmit through their teaching can thrive in the modern world.
Qualities anchored in the important values of justice, morality, and equality. Qualities that demand humanistic insights and analysis, and heightened levels of understanding. Qualities that no democracy can survive without.
In fact, Dr. Lewis also asked the graduates a very timely question that day: “What will you do to trouble the waters in an age of democratic need?”
An example of how humanists helped us “trouble the waters” here at Michigan involves the complex issue of controversial names on campus facilities.
Earlier this year, we considered requests to remove the names of two men who held white supremacist views.
One of the spaces was a hallway inside one of our dormitories, and the other was an entire building named after former U-M President and prominent geneticist Clarence Cook Little.
The latter was the most complex, so it’s the one I will briefly discuss.
It involved science, politics, history, and social justice.
And it required humanists to help us make sense of it all.
During and after his service as university president, C.C. Little campaigned for eugenic measures, including restrictions on immigration from certain countries and the promotion of sterilization of those he deemed “unfit.” At one point, he was the president of the Eugenics Society of America.
He later worked on behalf of the tobacco industry to discredit science that demonstrated links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
He basically ignored scientific principles — to the harm of millions of people.
So you can see how it is problematic that one of the buildings we use to teach science had his name on it.
We asked the President’s Committee on University History, chaired by Professor of History and former LS&A Dean Terry McDonald to consider the issue of renaming more broadly as well as the CC Little case.
The committee includes the director of our Humanities Collaboratory, the director of our Bentley historical library, and professors in African American Women’s History, the history of art, and the history of medicine.
They first derived a set of eight principles that could be used to consider requests of this type —
things like historical and institutional context, pedagogy, and contemporary effect.
They examined the context of Little’s time, as well as the values we would or would not be upholding by preserving his name in making their recommendation to me. After months of rigorous work, our Board of Regents unanimously agreed to remove the name.
It was a great and important moment for our university.
Before I take your questions, I again want to thank you for the outstanding work you do and the wisdom you provide to your colleagues and students.
Your contributions as humanists help keep universities at the forefront of creativity, education, and societal impact.
As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1964, at Spring Commencement right here on the University of Michigan campus, one year before the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities:
“Your imagination and your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth…” “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”