“This Michigan of ours”

First principles

Lately, it’s been hard to feel the steadfast loyalty to Michigan that many of us have felt for much of our lives.

The new year had barely begun when the Board of Regents fired President Mark Schlissel for materially breaching his contract. They cited emails between the president and a subordinate that demonstrated Schlissel failed to act in a manner “consistent with promoting the dignity and reputation of the University.” On Jan. 15, Mary Sue Coleman, U-M president from 2002-14, agreed to return as interim.

A few days later, Coleman and the Regents released a statement that the University was committing nearly half a billion dollars to settle abuse claims filed by some 1,050 claimants who were patients of the late physician Robert E. Anderson.

A little more than a year had passed since the University agreed to pay $9.25 million to eight women whom former Provost Martin Philbert had harassed during his tenure. Philbert was fired in March 2020.

In many years of writing about U-M history, I’ve never shied from describing the bad along with the good. My aim has been to tell the institution’s story honestly, in all its complexity. But it’s far easier to be honest when the topic is shrouded in the sepia tones of yore.

When we care for an institution, we tend to idealize it. It’s easy to forget that it’s made up of nothing but flawed human beings. And U-M has had its full share of those over two centuries — students, faculty, and administrators alike.

But an institution is both less and more than people. It never should be defended at the expense of individuals. (That’s happened time and again at Michigan, as at perhaps every sizable school.) But an institution also transcends individuals through generations.

It’s wise to discard an illusion, but not to replace it with cynicism. We can recapture faith in the place by returning to first principles. That’s what I’ve been thinking about as I try to move past bewilderment and disillusionment.

Students and professors talking

I thought of U-M’s first president, the philosopher and clergyman Henry Philip Tappan, who arrived in Ann Arbor in 1852. “He was tall and broad of shoulders,” a student recalled many years later. “The young men of the older classes, as they came under President Tappan’s personal influence as an instructor, became to a man profoundly impressed by him and drawn to him.” (Women would not attend for 20 more years.)

Tappan spread the vision of a great institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge not for private ends but in the public interest — a new idea in the 1850s. “Where eminent professors breathe around the spirit of knowledge and liberal culture,” he said in his inaugural address, “and give the example of a noble devotion to learning, they…create a prevailing sentiment which will prove more commanding than all written statutes…”

He was saying the University at its core would not be made by regents’ bylaws or bricks and mortar. If it were to last, it would be held up by nothing more substantial than the breath of professors and students talking.

Good teachers and engaged students know what that means.

“I like to profess”

Carl Cohen

Carl Cohen taught at Michigan from 1955 to 2017. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

I thought, too, of the philosophy professor Carl Cohen (1931-), whom I had in 1974 for an extraordinary course in the Residential College called “Logic and Language.” Cohen taught at Michigan from 1955 to 2017. As president of the faculty’s Senate Assembly, he would refer to the president of the University as “Professor Fleming” or “Professor Duderstadt.” His point: They were professors first, administrators second. The purpose of the latter was to help the former.

Cohen was sometimes controversial, as when he opposed the use of race as a criterion in admissions. But in the classroom, and with colleagues, he exemplified the values of free inquiry. “Carl is fiercely principled,” wrote his colleague, the poet Cynthia Sowers, upon his retirement, “and does not yield to adversaries equally fierce. Yet…his vigorous style communicates respect for his opponent. His positions do not harden into coercive ideologies… Learning does not necessarily entail agreement; agreement does not entail conformity. What emerges from the intellectual encounter with Carl is that most mysterious, elusive, and treasured of human aspirations: freedom: the goal of all educational practice.”

I thought of the law professor L. Hart Wright (1917-83), the nation’s leading authority on the Internal Revenue code. Asked why he became a law professor when he could have made a fortune as a tax attorney, he shrugged and said: “I like to profess.” Many law students considered him both the hardest and best of their teachers. One of them, Elizabeth Gaspar Brown, remembered Wright’s frequent command to “‘think about it! Think about it! Think!’ Well, I started, not always inwardly graciously, to think.”

I remembered a glimpse I once got of the English professor Moses Coit Tyler (1835-1900). It came in a letter written by Mary Downing Sheldon, one of the first women to attend Michigan. “The happiest hour of all the day,” she wrote, “is when four o’clock comes and I climb the four flights of stairs to the room where the western sun shines in over dingy walls, and when the master, with his fine face and sympathetic heart, teaches us the grace, the power, the fine artistic use of words… He treats us as equals.”

“First, the eyes”

George Dock

George Dock was the first full-time professor of medicine in the U.S. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

I thought of the astronomer Hazel “Doc” Losh (1898-1978). She was famous as Michigan football’s number-one fan, but she was renowned as a teacher, too. During World War II she got letters from former students deployed all over the globe. “The stars look a lot different from down here than they did in Ann Arbor,” an Army sergeant told her in a letter from the South Pacific. “Watching the stars has given me many hours of pleasure since I came overseas and many times guard duty at night was made more enjoyable.”

I thought of George Dock (1860-1951), the first full-time professor of medicine in the U.S. and a pioneer of clinical education — teaching medical students at the bedsides of actual patients. Before the revolution in diagnostic technology, Dock drilled his students in the assiduous application of their own senses to every case.

One day Dock and a group of students were examining a young woman. Dock called a student forward and said: “First, the eyes.”

The student leaned in for a close look at the patient’s eyes.

“I don’t see anything the matter with them,” he said.

“Your eyes, I mean,” Dock retorted. “Not hers.”

“This Michigan of ours”

Those professors “breathed the spirit of knowledge,” and their students came to breathe it, too. Their examples point the way forward.

We can reassert our loyalty to Michigan in good conscience if we simply recommit ourselves to a belief in what happens when professors and students explore, discover, understand, debate, and create.

It’s one thing, as an individual, to love learning — to be aware and curious. It’s quite another to support an institution whose whole purpose is to nurture and fulfill that love.

The institution is the purpose made permanent. The University is a means of defying our own mortality. It connects all the faculty, students, and alumni back through the generations and into the future — if we bear the burden of upholding its purpose.

When Fielding Yost retired at the end of his long career as football coach and athletic director, he spoke with deep feeling of “this Michigan of ours.”

In his time, Yost was the toast of the state. In this new century, his racism tarnishes his memory. He was no intellectual. But in that lyrical phrase — “this Michigan of ours” — I see a meaning worth taking to heart.

In its achievements and errors, its greatness and folly, it is our Michigan — students, faculty, alumni. Ours to change. Ours to help. Ours to give to the next generation.

This essay is adapted in part from the author’s book, Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores Two Centuries at the University of Michigan (2021) and stories of his at the University of Michigan Heritage Project. Other sources include Lewis S. Pilcher, “Some Reminiscenses of the Campus of the ‘Sixties,” Michigan Alumnus, 2/12/1925. Michigan Photography took the lead image after a lunar eclipse in October 2014. As the sun rose, the sky turned gold..


  1. Michael P. Goldsmith - 1979

    The large settlement has helped persuade me to shift my donations to schools without multi-billion dollar endowments.


    • Loraine Lamey - '85, '90

      Dear Mr. Goldsmith —

      With sympathies for the disappointment and feelings that we all have —

      My understanding is that most of the legal settlements are paid from insurance policies taken for these circumstances.

      The endowment allows the university to remain modestly stable across a 7-year window of larger financial cycles, despite state funding fluctuations. Tuition is a direct increase related to loss of state-funding. In many ways, we are a user-funded public university that seeks to be inclusive for the purpose of the best education for the students and our society.

      I say this because it is difficult, but please engage rather than withdraw.


  2. Frank Seeman - 1983

    A wonderful romanticization of prior people and place. The harsh reality is that Michigan has become a den of iniquity, inequality, and ignorance in favor of anti-science, anti-truth, anti-tolerance, hard core, leftist indoctrination.


    • Brendan Kirwin - 2004

      Mr. Seeman, can you please share your sources for such a sweeping accusation?

      If you’re referring to a learning community that is grappling with a pandemic, systemic racism and xenophobia, and a string of faculty and administrators who have betrayed their trust in profoundly harmful ways, and now are pushing back and asking for accountability and a public reckoning, then that sounds pretty reasonable to me.


      • Jim Hallett - 1972

        Just your tired repetion of Left name-calling – systemic racism, xenophobic, homophobic shows you are fully indoctrinated and a total Woke snowflake! When you come back to real life, let me know as you are just a poster child for Left propaganda, is all NOT true. Have fun with your delusions.


        • Brendan Kirwin - 2004

          Mr. Hallet, I questioned the validity of the commenter’s statements. You attacked me personally. That doesn’t seem like a very productive way to have intellectual debate. Did you use ad hominem attacks to shout down your fellow classmates who disagreed with you when you were attending UM?


      • Maureen Martin - 1980, 1988

        Mr Kirwin – thank you for speaking up. Mr. Seeman – clearly you haven’t been back on campus in a long long time. This place is always teeming with debate, sharing of ideas, protest (left and right and other), inclusion, exclusion, more debate, competing and helping each other to stretch into the people we are meant to be.


    • Jim Hallett - 1972

      I understand the need of a good endowment, but the indoctrination of academic foolishness does not promote a more educated populace. A college education has risen inflation-wise, faster than just about anything in the marketplace, meaning we have increased bureaucracy, higher student debt, and in many cases, a worthless degree to contribute in the economy, or enjoy any ability to feel proud of all the hard work you applied while in school. It was simply a trip down Leftist ideology lane, and a dead end future. A university should teach you how to think, to explore data for factual conclusions, not blindly accept some bureaucrat or politician’s prejudices and inaccuracies. The Covid nonsense is a perfect example of such. Faucism is all lies, and yet the U forces blind adherence to nonsense. It is not science, but anti-science and pure coercion and stifling of intelligent debate.


    • Jim Hallett - 1972

      Yep, they are so engraved with their Left BS, they cannot even recognize it.


      • Peter Rogan - 1977

        So! The only professor you ever listened to, I take it, was Donald Trump?

        Pause before you answer. History is watching. And listening.


  3. steve carnevale - 1978

    Thank you, Jim. Yes, we love the institution, but it does not love us back. It is an engine incapable of loving. Rather, it is a mirror reflection of the people attending in a given year. Over time, the collective wisdom, or not, of that particular moment in time. Only understood and appreciated in hindsight with greater wisdom collected in our life’s journey. And yet, the new neuroscience of the brain teaches us that memories are not accurate about the real happenings. Rather, they are filtering memories that highlight those with the most connected emotions. Likely that explains the nostalgia many of us feel for our individual coming of age when a blink of four years seems like a lifetime. I prefer to think of the university as the pageantry of lives passing through a place when we are most vulnerable to developing. We are not a victim of a machine that is really just a collection of ourselves in an amalgamation of wisdom facing many different world challenges over time. The few does not define the whole.


    • Anna D - 2009

      Wow! Beautifully said


  4. James Stariha - 1961

    What a great, inciteful piece. L. Hart Wright was my professor. Taxation was one of my least favorite classes, but Professor Wright was one of my favorite professors. I enjoyed his methods and classes.
    One memorable incident: Professor Wright related that a student indicated he might act in an unethical, illegal or fraudulent way on a tax matter after he became an attorney and that he, Professor Wright, told the student that he should drop out of law school.


  5. Chris Campbell - 1972 Rackham, 1975 Law

    I read every word James Tobin writes here. A university that produces such writers is doing something right.

    His piece came along just a day after I posted a link to Prof. Yale Kamisar’s NYT obituary on a listerv of State Bar of Michigan lawyers. Prof. Kamisar was a force of nature, Exhibit A for my theory that the real reason for higher education is to listen to bright people talk about things that interest them. When I think about my time in Ann Arbor, I do not recall administrators or passing scandals. I think of those bright people whom I encountered and who taught me things. I remain forever grateful that my state gave me the opportunity to spend 4-1/2 years in the company of engaging faculty and capable fellow students. U-M is our state’s crown jewel.

    It’s always important to correct an institution’s errors. Let’s also celebrate its virtues.

    Chris Campbell


  6. Laszlo Kiraly - 1960,1967

    It saddens me to hear that the university is now solidly on the “diversity, equity and inclusion” bandwagon, reflecting the now fashionable woke ideals.
    This is not the university I have grown to respect and trust and can support.


    • John Frey

      So you are anti diversity, anti equity and anti inclusion. This saddens me. All of these make a strong institution of higher learning. Which U of M continues to be.


  7. Wanda Smith - 1973

    I have on occasion wondered how anyone can consider woke to be a pejorative. Is it a positive to be described as asleep? If a person is against diversity, equity and inclusion it seems as if they might be in favor of uniformity, unfairness and exclusion. Let us know what you do believe in. It might be a more interesting exchange than simply spouting invectives.


  8. Daniel Madaj - 1973/82

    Thank you, Jim, for another wise and compassionate essay. Anyone who has read Sing To The Colors has the opportunity to see that Jim is a Michigan fan but also critical of Michigan’s shortcomings; he just doesn’t take an extremist, one-and-done position. We live in a time that reminds me of someone having dinner at a restaurant, feeling sick afterwards, and then 30 years later still avoiding the restaurant because of that ancient experience. No wonder our “divisions” seem wider and it seems harder to work together! Anyway, thank you, Jim, and I look forward to more U-M writings!


  9. Eugene Krass - 1996

    I was proud to be a U-M graduate for many years. Now, I am proud to be a graduate of “a top university,” as I have indicated in my Facebook profile. The reason? Mandatory “covid” “vaccines.” Way to be inclusive, eh? Yeah…many other colleges and universities went “mando vax,” but your motto is “Leaders and Best.” Leaders? U-M blindly followed the herd, invoking “safety.” Safety, diversity, inclusivity…just a few code words for “We like good things. And whoever disagrees with us must like bad things.” So…yeah…nice look back at the past, but the present speaks volumes about the near future.


  10. David Kessel - 1959 (PhD)

    An excellent article that sums up the best aspects of the place, and there are many. Unfortunately, Big Athletics, like a massive object that can warp space-time. can also warp the judgments of those who should know better. So can proximity to knishes. Looking past the comments from the deplorables, it appears that in spite of some errors along the way, the overall trajectory of the U of M has been putting its maximum efforts along the lines of excellence.


  11. Lois Josimovich - 1978

    Well said, Jim Tobin, as always.
    Jim Hallett, “A university should teach you how to think, to explore data for factual conclusions, not blindly accept some bureaucrat or politician’s prejudices and inaccuracies.” Exactly. I could not agree more. I am left wondering how the rest of your statement ties in with that point, or with this article.


  12. Herb Bowie - 1973

    I am grateful for my years at Michigan, and for my years serving on the board of our local alumni club here in Seattle. And yes, recent events and revelations — including the televised behavior of Juwan Howard courtside recently — have tested our faith in “the leaders and the best.” And yes, we have a long and storied history. But I do wonder whether it is wise for us to comfort ourselves with such ancient stories for too long. It seems to me we need something more from this institution, if it continues to want things from us. Perhaps we need a campaign — and a campaign that has nothing to do with fundraising — in which we hear from University leadership on exactly what they think it means to be among the “the leaders and the best,” and what commitments they are willing to make in order to live up to those words. But, for such a campaign to succeed, it needs to be more than hollow, self-serving rhetoric.


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