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22 ways to think about the University of Michigan

Episode 11: Terry McDonald — “22 ways to think about the University of Michigan”

Hi. I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of “Listen In, Michigan”, my guest is Terry McDonald, former dean of the college of literature science and the arts and current director of U of M’s Bentley Historical Library. Terry is teaching a course called 22 ways to think about the University of Michigan. It’s a really fascinating look at the development of the university literally as a case study of the history of and current issues about higher education in America. So you know, the university opened in 1817 with two instructors and no students. It has risen from there to become one of the leading intellectual centers in the world, and as Teri will tell you, that happened very quickly. He has a lot of interesting insights about the history of the university one of which is the meaning behind that mysterious prays at the top of Angel Hall. You’ve walked by it a million times, you may have read it, you may never have even noticed it’s there. But little did you know, it has set the course for what the University of Michigan has become since its founding in 1817. Here’s Terry.

Terry McDonald: But why do we have universities? Well, part of it is because from time to time they’re going to stand in front of society and it’s a “wake-up folks,” that’s the point. So if we believe that universities are a place where the motivating impetus is a search for truth, sometimes those truths are going to be uncomfortable for society. But that’s a really important thing for universities to do. The University of Michigan was founded under the aegis of an act published by the Continental Congress in 1787 called the Northwest Ordinance, and the Northwest Ordinance organized Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa which was called the Old Northwest in those days – or I’m sorry, Illinois not Iowa – and required a free public education and every one of those states. Which was never before promised in any country on Earth. What the bill did was provide land-grant universities. They could sell the land and use the money to establish a university. Every state was required to have a university, so the promise of free public education was fundamental to this sort of second stage of American history. So the university comes out of this really great and powerful kind of revolutionary imagination. The Northwest Ordinance was written by Thomas Jefferson. This was the tremendous belief in the founding fathers that education was crucial to democracy, and the phrase that was then put on the top of Angel Hall, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary for good government. Schools and the means of education itself forever be provided.” And that’s such a great statement. I call it the birth certificate. It connects the university’s mission which is finding the frontiers of knowledge and teaching it to this other very powerful interest, which is a functioning democracy. And the fact that the founding fathers from even before the Constitution was bad, believe that this connection between education and democracy was absolute. And so, the university comes out of that tradition. It therefore accepts that public role it’s had to invent that role: what is a public university? What does it do? How does it survive? What’s this supposed to do for society? What’s the connection between university and society? All of these questions, the University of pretty much had to invent, because it is one of the first public universities in America. And so that role of such a thing really wasn’t very well understood. Step back and look up to the top of it, and look at that motto. Ask yourself, “how are we doing?” Are we making that connection between the frontiers of knowledge and the power of democracy – because that’s pretty much what we were founded to do. How do we do that, and how do we think about that? These are all great questions that I think are kind of inspiring when you stand back and look at the columns on Angel Hall and the and the motto over the top of it.

Holdship: So, why do you think it’s important for people who come to the university to know about the history of the university and its significance in American culture in the world?

McDonald: There’s a variety of levels I think at which you can think of the University. Surprisingly, one is as an autonomous branch – an independent branch – of the state government. So the university is declared autonomous of the state government at a co-equal constitutional branch at the state government in 1851, and the symbolic and practical embodiment of that is the elected board of regions. That becomes very, very important because it means that the university basically runs itself as it still does to this day. The regions are the ultimate authority over the university not the state government, and the argument was made in the State Legislature that if you want to ruin a university but the state legislature in charge. So that autonomy has been an important part of the University’s history at a very high level of generality. The second thing about it is it’s a school, or we basically teach students, and everyone from the greenest freshman in the dorm to the resident who does surgery on your brain is a student, and that’s what that’s why that’s what we do. And therefore there’s going to be a history of education in the university. The other thing that people forget sometimes about the university is we’re community by invitation only, right we’re not a mall, were a different kind of a place. And I think sometimes we can forget that. So every student every staff member every faculty member, are here on invitation. And so we’re a community of invitation and intention. So when we invoke these values of community and university as a community it’s very real because everyone is a community. And when we talk about treating people well within the community, that’s also very important because of course we’ve invited everyone here. So now we need to figure out how can we all basically kind of get along and and do things together. Another thing is that the role of the faculty and the university has been fundamental from the very beginning and most importantly the faculty sets up the curriculum, it’s not as if everything is fair game for the university and nor can there be agendas attached to the university. And in fact, the faculty determine what the curriculum is, they always have. This has been a very important function of the fact that all the way along, it reflects their expertise. And so that’s another I think important theme of our history too.

Holdship: So, I was looking at your syllabus and you’ve got these different kind of eras that you look at. So, the University of Michigan sort of becomes a metaphor, I guess, for concepts or cultural movements.

McDonald: The idea of a university quite frankly is that it is not simply a mirror of society. In fact, it’s a challenge to society oftentimes. And faculty do that by pushing the boundaries of their field by discovering things that people are not always going to be comfortable with. Let’s take President Angell decision to eliminate chapel. It was a hugely controversial decision. So in the 19th century, most universities either were religious or had a Protestant kind of a what I would call an evangelical Protestant religious framework. There was a difference between being anti-religious and being non-sectarian. So there had to be a non-sectarian Protestantism on the campus people thought, and President Angell arrived here and said, who who could possibly believe that forcing someone to go to church is a good thing? Who could believe this? And so as of now it’s voluntary. Well, wow, there was a huge uproar over that decision but I mean that’s the kind of thing. Why did he think that? Well of course it’s because of his own experience and his own expertise. The discussions of the faculty about what the appropriate role of the ceremonies in the university. The university is frequently doing things that outrage other people, but it’s not just doing it to do that. It’s because one of its roles actually is from time to time to question the things that society takes for granted, and most of the time because there has been kinds of new ideas. You can talk about the controversy over teaching evolution on the campus. But, the university again under President Angell said we have to do this. The scientific movement was driving in that direction and validating that research. That idea that from time to time the university students, faculty, others will do things that are in advance of some of the other aspects of society, that’s just inevitable. I mean you know, people think, well if you want controversy, take a look at what science is doing and some of these kind of things. It’s quite amazing what what scientists are thinking about these days. But the point is that the worst thing you could do, let’s go back to the original point I made about why did the founders of the university in the 1830s in 40s want the University to be autonomous of political interference: because they wanted it to be the place that was never trammeled. And that was the word they used, never “trammeled,” by political agendas that it was always going to be determined by the people inside the university who in their view had the expertise to run a university. And now this is a tremendous grant of responsibility and freedom that society gives. And by the way, it gives that to every major university in America. You cannot be a major university if you are constantly being ridden and controlled by people outside the university. For better or worse, that’s the reality of it. So most of our curriculum is driven by the frontiers of research of the faculty. So if you ask why do we teach this course and that course in various departments frequently it’s because that’s where the faculty research is driving the field. Sometimes people will ask “oh maybe I should teach a course that connects this to something else.” So for example, I’m an American historian, why am I teaching a course on the University of Michigan? Well, just it seems to me that people at the university should know something about themselves, but even that is based to a great extent on new things that we’ve discovered about the history of the university

Holdship: Is there’s something recently that you’ve discovered, or some new information in the past year that you’ve come across?

McDonald: A faculty member just recently published a book on the history of Hillel at the University of Michigan. Just fascinating story. So in the twenties and thirties, Michigan was one of the capitals of anti-Semitism in America. And so to be a Jewish student at the University in those days was really complicated. And Hillel of course was an organization that was trying to organize and help Jewish students on the campus. I think I think something we’ve learned from that, first of all, just the history of this organization for example. But also the fact that the university has been open to many many comers but it hasn’t always been easy for the first generation of those comers. For example, it was legal until 1964 to discriminate in housing based on race, gender, or religion. So both African American students, female students, and for that matter Jewish students, had a hard time finding a place to live in Ann Arbor. And so we’re learning quite a lot about that and all that is is pretty new.

Holdship: So I would imagine too there’s a day that you talk about Michigan sort of as a hub of social change, of social activity. People always talk about Michigan as being a place where all these movements kind of grew up.

McDonald: The very idea that you take students between the ages of say, 18 to 22, and you put them together for four years and you encourage them to think big thoughts about things… inevitably you’re going to end up with people who are questioning social arrangements. For most of the 19th century, the most powerful place of conversation about social change was in religion. When students came to the University of Michigan, until 1871, they were required to go to chapel. It was President Angell who abolished chapel, very controversial, made chapel voluntary — very controversial decision. But the importance of that was that one of the most popular organizations on the campus was a student Christians’ organization: an organization that encouraged students to attend lectures on the relevance of what they were studying for social change. So for example, famous reformers would come through town from, you know, the social gospel people. Jane Adams used to come through, and speak to students in this in this student Christian Association to encourage them to think about the ways in which their education and society were meshing. So there’s this long tradition on this campus of initially a religiously focused questioning of “How does my education connect with what’s going on in society” and oftentimes the question was “how can I use my education to better society?” So that kind of set off, that built, a social consciousness in the university in a kind of interesting way. That then led, in the twenties and thirties, to students who were deeply engaged in the rise of working-class organizations in the state, in Detroit, and elsewhere, who are affiliated with national kind of student in working-class organizations, who were connected with union agitation, for example, during the New Deal. Who then brought those ideas to campus, and I think it was another phase of this, and it became more secular then, because of course, for one thing the student religious organizations and changed over time and the student body became more diverse. So in a funny way, the University’s connection with social change really began and became very very powerful in the 1880s and 1890s when faculty and students together said to themselves: “What’s the relevance of what we’re doing for what’s going on in society?” And that question has never stopped. So I think the interesting thing about this, is it’s not as if there’s outside agitators coming in here and stirring up students, this has been a question that students and faculty have asked themselves since the 1880s at least.

Holdship: It’s a relationship too. So you’re not always gonna get along…
Terrance McDonald: Right, that’s right.

Holdship: and there’s so many people who have come through these halls over the years…

McDonald: Yeah, yeah.

Holdship: But, of course people are going to be critical of decisions that are made here or…

McDonald: Again, we are a community. And I think the most important thing that we all have to recognize is that inevitably, and this of course, this is the hardest on the faculty. The community changes every year. The first time a student came up to me and said, “I’m taking your class because my dad told me I should.” I was like “Woah!” Hah! But you know, that’s kinda what happens! That perspective is important, I think for everyone. For faculty, for students, especially for alumni and sympathizers with the university. So every every group of students is new. And for them, all of these issues are new. And it’s important to recognize that whether we’re talking about students that are protesting, or studying, or on the athletic field, these are 18-year-old students starting off. These are people who want to be the best in everything they do, and that’s the really powerful kind of thing has been important about Michigan, I think. They should have the leeway to find themselves in this in the various ways in which they can on the campus, and alumni and sometimes faculty have to kind of step back and let that happen. And what that is going to be, is unpredictable, and sometimes it’s going to seem like it’s not the way I would have done it or somebody else might have done it, but it’s an important part of the self-discovery. If we really believe that part of the experience of being at a university is to discover new things, create new things, believe new things: then we have to be open to let that happen. And from time to time, that means that students and others will discover things that we may not agree with. But that’s part of the experience, and we have to I think, within some limits, we have to be basically relaxed about letting that happen.

Holdship: Well, that is true and it’s worked for the past 200 years. I’m sure it’s going to work for the next 200. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much to Terry McDonald for taking the time to talk to me. If you’d like to subscribe to “Listen, in Michigan” please visit iTunes or TuneIn and search for “Listen, in Michigan”. Otherwise, you can listen to past podcasts here at the Michigan Today website under the podcast tab. Alright, well we’ll see you next month. Until then… as always, go blue!


Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

American historians like Terrence McDonald, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History and director of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, will tell you those words are excerpted from the Northwest Ordinance, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

And while many scholars might stop there, McDonald likely will go on to tell you that these words, inscribed above the entrance to Angell Hall, are also the “birth certificate” of the University of Michigan.

“There was a tremendous belief by the founding fathers that education was crucial to democracy,” McDonald says. “And that statement connects the University’s mission, which is finding the frontiers of knowledge and teaching it, to this other very powerful interest, which is a functioning democracy. The founding fathers, even before the Constitution was passed, believed that this connection between education and democracy was absolute.”

The search for truth

Listen in, as the former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts shares that revelation (and many others) inspired by his course “22 Ways to Think About the University of Michigan.” The class presents the University as a case study of “both the great success of American public higher education and the significant tensions present in that development through time.”

Pushing boundaries

McDonald developed the course “22 Ways to Think about the University of Michigan” to provoke discussion around such issues as the role of public universities, the need for intellectual freedom, the relevance of research to social goals, the relationship between faculty and students, and more.

“The University is frequently doing things that outrage people, but it’s not just doing it to do that,” McDonald says. “The idea of a university is that it is not simply a mirror of society. In fact, it’s a challenge to society often times. So if we believe universities are places where the motivating impetus is the search for truth, we also have to accept that sometimes those truths are going to be uncomfortable for society. But that’s a really important thing for universities to do.”

What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.


  1. Chris Campbell - 1972 (Rackham); 1975 (law)

    Prof. McDonald reminded us that the university is an invitational community. Everybody there–faculty, students–has been invited to participate. I had never quite thought about it that way. For those of us who have had the extraordinary good fortune to be invited, it’s moving to think that “They invited me.”


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