To President Schlissel: Seize Your Cultural Moment and Preserve Michigan as Home to the Leaders and Best
Note: This post was originally written July 2017 to be posted in the summer edition of The Michigan Daily. After several discussions with the editorial board, they decided not to run the piece. I then opted to forward it directly to President Schlissel, who was my primary intended audience. He graciously read it and personally responded. Feeling satisfied I left it alone, however, in light of recent events, I would like to publish the piece and see if it reaches anyone on campus. If it does, please feel free to respond. I would love to start a dialogue about free speech at The University of Michigan. Go Blue!
“This is what great universities do: We encourage all voices, no matter how discomforting the message. It takes far more courage to hear and try to understand unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas than it does to shout down the speaker. You don’t have to agree, but you have to think…Learning how to engage with such people and worldviews is one of the most essential skills we can teach. And who will teach them if not us?…That is why I want Michigan to be known as a place where mutual respect does not require agreement, where differences of perspective are treated with sensitivity, and where all become advocates for, and experts in, civil discourse. Absent such an environment, we diminish ourselves as scholars and students. We betray our commitment to discovery and truth. And we fail our children, our world, and ourselves.”
As I sat in Hill Auditorium in the summer of 2014, witnessing your inauguration as the fourteenth president of our University of Michigan, these words particularly affected me. The issue of campuses lacking in diversity of opinion wasn’t yet a specific, or even peripheral, focus of mine but these words resonated with me nonetheless. I remember the walk home after the ceremony ended, my roommates and I revisiting this topic especially. It wasn’t until 2017, now an alumnus, that I can truly appreciate how imperative and prophetic this theme of your speech was. To even call it a “theme of your speech” is an understatement. Comprising 28% of the words in your speech this “tenet,” as you called it, was one of three in your “mission” for the future of the University under your leadership.
Your speech clearly demonstrated that you care about free speech, about freedom of thought, about diversity of opinion. You necessarily reject the prerequisites for a college campus to function as a safe space. You want an environment where students use their experience, passion, and intellect to engage in discourse and challenge one another’s foundational views and opinions. Today, these essential values of a classically liberal education are under assault and the time is now to see your mission put into action. It’s probable that my writing this to a major university president in 2017 could be considered “preaching to the choir”. But if so, where is our action? Where have we led on this issue? At Michigan we pride ourselves on being the leaders and best. Wayward college campuses across the country have lost sight of these values and are in need of leadership. “And who will teach them if not us?” The speech may have been prophetic but the action you take could be revolutionary.
Much of the first half of your speech was spent humbly accepting the position of University president and providing its historical context, detailing the impacts of the thirteen men and women who came before you. You exemplified several presidents who stewarded our University through especially tumultuous moments:
“Henry Tappan in the 1850s shaped the modern American research university. James Angell, who served for 38 years through 1909, was at the fore of making us a global university. Alexander Ruthven, a zoologist, successfully guided us through two remarkable eras, the Depression and the Second World War. Robben Fleming, an expert in labor relations and mediation, promoted civility during one of our nation’s most fractious decades spanning the Vietnam War and Watergate.”
These men are remembered because they seized their respective cultural moments. They made decisions, some undoubtedly challenging, that led our university on a path towards becoming the highly respected institution that we love today. This is your cultural moment. The University of Michigan needs your stewardship through this tumultuous time. And by steering the University towards these professed values, we can be the leaders and best for higher education as a whole. Today, in Ann Arbor, we must draw a line the sand to revive and protect intellectual discourse, intellectual honesty, and the freedoms of speech and thought. And who will lead if not us?
Look no further than the failure of The Evergreen State College for an example of the turbulence of this cultural moment. Led by your contemporary George Bridges, a president with tenets antithetical to your own, The Evergreen State College in Washington State has fallen into disarray. While this situation is complex and warrants several articles in its own right, I will briefly outline it as follows: Last year, student groups organized an inversion on the campus’ annual “day of absence” where, traditionally, students of color voluntarily absent themselves from campus as a way of demonstrating their value to the community (borrowing from the play Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward). But this year, the student groups asked white students to refrain from coming to campus instead. Professor of Evolutionary Biology Bret Weinstein objected, via a private email, to the Day of Absence’s faculty organizer, on the grounds that, “There is a huge difference between a group or collation deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles…and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” Weinstein argued the latter to be inherently racist and that “one’s right to speak –or to be–must never be based on skin color.” What followed the public release of these emails, the alleged evidece of wrongdoing and catalyst for the ensuing campus-wide upheaval, was a series of events that included students labeling Professor Weinstein as a racist and white supremacist, protests calling for his firing, physically searching campus classrooms and empty cars for his person, and barricading in portions of the campus among other incidents. Ultimately Professor Weinstein had to move his class off campus for the safety of himself and his students, and multiple days of classes were canceled. Graduation was even moved to an off-campus location to accomodate the new security concerns. This past week, a memo written to students by Evergreen State’s Vice President for Student Affairs informed them that several of these actions were criminal and that “in the future, individuals could be charged with crimes including obstruction of law enforcement, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, and/or unlawful imprisonment,” for the actions already taken. In spite of this acknowledgement, to date no students have been formally punished. In fact, President Bridges has instead praised the students expressing his “gratitude for the passion and courage [they] have shown…”
While Evergreen State provides an especially disheartening example, this campus incident cannot be written off as a sole outlier or something limited to small liberal arts colleges. This past year, the University of California at Berkeley, a fellow “public ivy,” has experienced even greater levels of physical violence and destruction. After the Berkeley College Republicans invited Milo Yiannopoulos — a provocative right-wing speaker and writer — to campus, protesters responded. Violent protests raged across campus, including setting fires in the streets, smashing in windows and otherwise vandalizing buildings, ultimatley resulting in an estimated $100,000 in damages. The school was forced to enact a campus wide lockdown and the speaker’s appearance was canceled due to safety concerns. These protesters, which included people not associated with the university, demonstrated that they were not interested in engaging in the often-difficult work of civil discourse. The more than 100 members of university faculty who signed onto a letter of protest, calling for the disinvitation of Milo prior to the violent protests, were similarly disinterested. As Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of the university recalled, “I had a faculty member of the campus call me and say, ‘You must ban him.’” Upon reminding this faculty member of Milo’s first amendment rights, they said “No, he’s not (protected by the first amendment)…because he’s wrong.” In your speech, you reminded us that “It takes far more courage to hear and try to understand unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas than it does to shout down the speaker. You don’t have to agree, but you have to think.” Michigan can lead by being a campus willing to demonstrate this courage.
In an ongoing case at the University of Toronto, this trend extends, simultaneously, internationally and closer to home at Michigan, where professor Jordan Peterson has been at the heart of a hate speech versus free speech debate regarding the hot button issue of gender pronouns for transgender individuals. While Peterson has luckily avoided the physical violence like that experienced at Berkeley, the University of Toronto, and other campuses he has visited, have experienced similar disruption, with protestors at times opting to blow air horns in an attempt to silence him rather than your suggetion of trying to “hear and…understand [his] unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas.”
The examples of Evergreen, Cal, and Toronto serve as alarming indications of college campuses at this cultural moment. But Evergreen’s Professor Bret Weinstein serves this article beyond acting as an illustrative example of one professor who has fallen victim to a school lacking these values; he is also a Michigan alumnus, having received his Ph.D. in Biology in 2009. Not only is he a Michigan alumnus, he is a Michigan Man: someone who epitomizes the qualities and values emphasized in your speech as well as those upon which our university stands. Besides having the integrity to take a stand against a perceived injustice in the face of great personal and professional risk, Professor Weinstein is also a leading voice in the field of evolutionary biology. He was among the top students of one of the world’s leading evolutionary theorists, Dr. Richard D. Alexander, Emeritus Professor and Curator of Insects at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. If a “Michigan Man” exists, Bret Weinstein is one. I cannot think of another alumnus whose actions make him more deserving of the honorific. Ethical, honorable, curious, brilliant, eloquent, passionate; these words describe Professor Weinstein’s core characteristics. The fact that this man has been forced into professional and personal hiding, unable to teach without the looming threat of violence, over a call against racial segregation is unacceptable. The institution and president he works for do not value the “challenging work” of “not only building a diverse student body, but also creating an inclusive campus climate that is open to difficult discourse,” that you rightfully expect of Michigan. Professor Weinstein deserves what you call for in “a place where mutual respect does not require agreement, where differences of perspective are treated with sensitivity, and where all become advocates for, and experts in, civil discourse.” He deserves a university that will foster the type of interaction and education he is attempting to engage in with his students. Professor Weinstein should not only be a Michigan Man, he should be a Michigan Professor, not as an act of charity but as a simultaneously symbolic and concrete step towards solidifying Michigan as a home for the values professed in your mission.
As I sit in my apartment and type this article, no longer living in Ann Arbor or attending classes at the University, I think about why I feel motivated to do it. I am not a “writer” in any professional, or even amateur, context. I am, however, concerned that our University is being pulled by the tides that have pulled in campuses like Evergreen, Berkeley, Toronto, and many others. Michigan is at our best when we lead. We do not follow when those who seek to lead are heading in a direction antithetical to our values as an institution. I write this because I feel it needs to be written. I am attempting to seize my cultural moment by asking you to recognize and seize yours. Write your line for the inauguration speeches of your successors, the future presidents of our University, who will remember your decisive action in your cultural moment, a moment when taking such action was so desperately needed and also so difficult to do. If Bret Weinstein can lead by taking an ethical stand as an individual professor, surely our mighty University of Michigan can do the same. It’s not too grandiose to think that we can make this important difference. We can take steps that will challenge the trend across campuses moving against these values essential to a robust liberal education. And a perfect first step on this journey would be to hire Bret Weinstein. I will leave you with the words that you left us with that inauguration afternoon in Hill Auditorium:
“This is part of our mission. To believe that we can do anything. To employ the power of ideas and our collective diversity of experience to solve important problems and strengthen lives and communities. To challenge, and be challenged, with our heads and with our hearts, to lead and be the best. To be Michigan, an exceptional global public university, where learning transforms lives and promotes economic progress, and where we pursue together understanding and discovery that will change the world. Thank you. And Go Blue!”
I respectfully ask you President Schlissel: Who will lead if not us? And who will lead us if not you?