Chancellor's Office

Convocation 2004

 

September 7, 2004

"The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth." -- W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

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Welcome to you, the class of 2008. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I extend the warmest welcome to you and your families. You are a very accomplished group of young people, and we are proud to have you join us on the campus. You have excelled in your academic work, and many of you have shown great potential as leaders. I know that you will develop your talents enormously in the coming years at UM-Dearborn, and I know as well that our region and our country needs your best efforts. You are lucky to be here, and we are lucky to have you!

I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the university and the experience we hope you will have here.

The university is a place of engagement. We expect you to develop your own intellectual passions and to share these exciting ideas with others. We expect you to dive into the classroom, into the ideas to which you will be exposed, into animated discussions with your peers about these ideas, and into discussion and debate with your teachers. It is highly meaningful that such a large number of the faculty have come together today to celebrate this beginning. We want your engagement; we welcome your challenge and your debate; and we will ask much of you.

Because the university is also a place of challenge. It is important to know from the start that your experience in the classrooms and laboratories that make up UM-Dearborn will not be easy. You will be expected to study hard, to reflect and consider, to master new modes of analysis and deliberation, and to draw out the connections that you find between the various disciplines that you will study. We have high expectations of you, because you have high expectations of yourselves.

A university is a place for learning and individual development. But it is more than that. It is a community of learners, teachers, and scholars. It is a place for intense intellectual relationships; for friendships with people whose initial assumptions and frameworks are very different from your own; and a place for gaining commitment to and confidence in the many ways in which we can live together in the most progressive and supportive ways possible within our communities, present and future.

The university is a place where the values of integrity and honesty are particularly central. It is all too easy to cut corners in life, and this is true in the university no less than in business or government. So it is possible to find term papers on the Internet; to cheat on an examination; or to turn in someone else’s problem set in place of your own work. But I pose this question to you: is this the moral example you wish to set to yourself? Now is the right time to make the personal decision to live by principles you can respect throughout your life.

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This afternoon you received a short quotation including the words of the great African-American sociologist, W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois is one of the pivotal thinkers in our history on the subject of race in America. He penned the prescient words, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” He was also a powerful advocate of the importance and value of education as a source of social progress. I would like to take a few minutes today in order to link these ideas, and to share with you my thinking about how they pertain to UM-Dearborn.

I think of the mission of the University of Michigan-Dearborn as one of deep engagement in the social and economic issues that confront our region. This means that the campus needs to be reflective about the problems and challenges that we face in Southeast Michigan—the future of manufacturing, the fate of the urban environment, and the quality and effectiveness of K-12 schools, for example. And one of those issues, unmistakably, is the issue of race. We live in one of the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country; we live in a region that has witnessed a history of discrimination that extends over a century; we live in a region whose history of race is written on its urban geography. And we live in a community that is really multiple separate communities with very limited avenues of communication among them. So our challenge is to engage positively and helpfully with issues of race for the twenty-first century. How can we as a community come to have a better understanding of the cultures and histories that define us? How can we learn to communicate more openly and honestly with each other, learning from each other’s experiences and life histories? And, most materially, how can we as an institution play a part in helping to create a more just, equitable, and hopeful future for a metro area that can use more grounds for hope?

One part of the answer is suggested by DuBois’ own words: the role that education can play in helping each person achieve the fullness of his or her talents, and to harness those talents to the achievement of personal and community goals. DuBois was optimistic at the role that colleges and universities could play in leading our country towards greater racial justice. One hundred years later, we can ask the question whether colleges and universities have played this role. A balanced reading of the history suggests: not as fully as we should have. The opportunities of higher education are less fully available, and less accessible across racial groups, than they should be. And more deeply—universities have paid less attention to the historical legacy and contemporary reality of racial discrimination than we ought to have. The “ivory tower university” has not succeeded in engaging deeply with the issues of race surrounding it. It is my hope that the “metropolitan university” can be greatly more successful.

What do I mean when I say that Detroit’s history of race is written on its urban geography? I turn here for a moment to an important contemporary historian of race in Detroit, Professor Tom Sugrue at the University of Pennsylvania. In his very important book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Sugrue shows how the neighborhoods, roads, factories, and suburbs of Detroit took their shape around the facts of race in the city. Discrimination, threat, and social separation are essential parts of this story; and their legacy is with us today. (I hope that we will be able to bring Tom Sugrue back to UM-Dearborn for a lecture in the next year or so.)

A Harvard philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has written very eloquently about the complexity of racial identity in America today. It is surprisingly difficult to answer the question, “What is my identity as an American?” Appiah points out that there is no “essential” identity as “African-American,” “Arab-American,” or “Polish-American.” Instead, each of us has a history, a geography, and a series of personal experiences that have constituted us as individuals. And yet, there are substantial similarities within groups along the lines of history, place, and experience, and so it is understandable that something like “collective identities” emerge. As Appiah puts the point: “Collective identities … provide what we might call scripts: narratives that people can use in shaping their life plans and in telling their life stories.” So one of our challenges for mutual understanding—particularly in a community as culturally diverse as metropolitan Detroit—is to get well enough acquainted with each other to know the history and circumstances that have brought each of us to the “identity” we currently bear, and to come to a fluency in reading each other’s “scripts”.

How can we make progress on a problem as large as that of race in America? I believe that there are a number of strategies open to us at UM-Dearborn. And these approaches come back to the themes of engagement, community, and integrity to which I referred at the start.

  • Community collaboration—e.g. New Detroit, Arab Community Center for Economic & Social Services (ACCESS), ACC

A community’s greatest asset is the collection of organizations of citizens who have come together to work towards improving its future. Metropolitan Detroit has many such organizations—surrounding issues of environment, health, and leadership. And UM-Dearborn has a strong track record of working constructively with community partners in pursuit of important community objectives.

  • Individual commitment to be part of the solution—Campus Compact, service commitments to inner city schools, …

Each of you can have a direct involvement in the progress of our region and our communities, and the campus can help you find these involvements. UM-Dearborn is actively involved in the AASCU Democracy Project and the efforts by Campus Compact to encourage student involvement in service activities. The School of Education recently received a major grant to permit participation in Project JumpStart, which will be an outstanding opportunity for some of our students to get involved in community service with young children. There are many other opportunities that we can help you find for providing service to the communities in which we live, and I know that you will find these service opportunities to be enormously valuable to you in your personal and educational development.

  • Contributions to the improvement of K-12 education

DuBois describes the impact that free elementary education had for African-American children in the post-Civil War south. Education is even more important today as a vehicle for opportunity and development—and yet schooling in urban America is facing a deep crisis. Through our School of Education and our ongoing ability to educate young teachers with the commitment and skills needed for success, we can make a significant impact on the availability of opportunity for children throughout the metropolitan area. And through the efforts of our faculty in the School of Education we can engage in partnerships with teachers and schools throughout the region in improving pedagogy, curriculum, and effectiveness.

  • Collective efforts to find new and better ways of communicating about race on our campus

Finally, we can make very specific efforts to deepen the quality of inter-cultural community that we have created on the campus itself. In the coming year I want to encourage you to get involved in a specific activity on the campus. This is our ongoing series of events called “Conversations on Race for a New Generation.” It is a collaboration with New Detroit, and it is intended to help create a climate of honesty and mutual understanding on the campus that will permit us as a community to move past the stale old stereotypes of the past. These conversations can make a significant difference in the quality of community we create on the campus. And they can make a significant personal difference to you, as you find ways of communicating openly and freely with others about sometimes difficult subjects. So I hope you will participate in these events and help us build
the kind of just and respectful community that we want to have on the campus. The first event this fall will take place on September 17 at the close of Welcome Week, and I hope to see many of you there.

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The work we are doing here—the work that you are beginning to engage in your studies at UM-Dearborn—is profoundly important. It is of course important to your own personal futures. But it is also important for the future of our society, and for the democratic values that we would wish to embody in the social order in which we live.

Congratulations to you and your families on this beginning. You have accomplished much, and we are proud to have you join the university community.

Please join me and the faculty at the ice cream social that will be hosted in the CASL courtyard immediately following this ceremony.