Let’s go Blue! – A memoir and a hope

By | November 12, 2017

Last week, Politico published an interesting article by Benjamin Wermund entitled, “In Trump country, a University confronts its skeptics”. It describes the complex situation currently facing the University of Michigan in terms of its ability to both provide an excellent education for students and its ability to reach out to rural and disadvantaged students within the state of Michigan. The author quotes President James Angell in 1879 as setting forth this dual mission as follows:

“Have an aristocracy of birth if you will or of riches if you wish, but give our plain boys from the log cabins a chance to develop their minds with the best learning and we fear nothing from your aristocracy. In the fierce competitions of life something besides blue blood or inherited wealth is needed to compete with the brains and character from the cabins.”

He goes on to note that:

“Angell’s words are still a part of life at the Ann Arbor campus these days, but the spirit is missing: Today’s University of Michigan includes more than its share of blue bloods and people with inherited wealth. Like many other flagship state universities that were founded to provide a leg up for the common man, Michigan has become a school largely for students with means. A full 10 percent of its student body comes from families in the top 1 percent of earners, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project. Just 16 percent come from families in the bottom 60 percent of earners combined. The median income of parents of students at the university is $156,000, roughly three times the median income of Michigan families.

Tuition, which has shot up to compensate for steep state budget cuts, is a major culprit. So, too, is an elite reputation that serves to drive away potential applicants in the state that sealed Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election: There’s a sense that working-class students don’t belong there.”

Now, I have a hard time believing that this is the case. I have a deep and abiding connection to the University of Michigan. I lived in Ann Arbor for a good many years, a long time ago. My father taught there for 16 years in the 60s and 70s. I have two graduate degrees (MPH and PhD) from UM. That’s where I bought and remodeled my first house. I haven’t really been back much since we moved away in 1979, so things may have changed a lot. But at least back then, along with assorted rich yuppie scum and an enormously varied and interesting collection of foreign students (with whom I worked during my years at the UM’s International Center, the foreign student office) , UM tended to attract a particular kind of undergraduate student, often from the farther reaches of Michigan and other plains states – specifically, kids who were academically ambitious and yet somewhat alienated from their roots, who saw UM as a haven, an island where they could be with other people who were not just like all those back in their small home towns. In short, for a significant number of students, UM really did provide over many years the kind of academic environment that Angell had promised so long ago.

A couple of examples. One of the women in my doctoral program, who later went on to become a close friend and valued colleague, was from a blue-collar family in Flint; UM was her ticket out of Flint. On the other hand, one of my father’s doctoral students (in epidemiology) was a guy from a farming family near Ishpeming (in the UP). He did very well in the program, but eventually decided to take a less prestigious job with the state health department in the UP, because he missed the woods. Once you had to the education, it was nice to think that you could take it anywhere you wanted to, whether that was back home or as far away from there as you could get.

What the university did, aside from providing a valuable credential that facilitated doing what you want to do, was to legitimize the rebel or semi-rebel intellectual kids and provide a variety of communities into which they could move. A whole lot like my own undergraduate institution, Reed College in Portland OR, in fact, although on a rather different scale. Neither Reed nor UM would work for everyone, but that ought not to delegitimize their function for those for whom they did work. I got a great education at Reed and later at UM, along with my valuable degrees, which have enabled me to move in lots of directions over the years. And my doctoral education cost a tiny fraction of what it would have cost anywhere else.  UM’s been doing that for going on 200 years now, and I suspect that it’s still doing so, although it may be somewhat harder to find.

I certainly agree that current university patterns are tending to advantage the already privileged.But then, universities have been doing that ever since the creation of the Universities of Paris and Bologna in the 1100s. Students still tend to drink a lot and occasionally riot in the streets, just as they have for the last thousand years. The question is what else they can do, aside from cosseting and credentialing the children of the rich. I think there is still a real role for this kind of institution in the American heartland. Places like UM have always served as safety valves for ambitious rural or inner-city kids who didn’t fit in where they grew up. Places like CCNY served the same function for urban kids over the years, and of course the many great historically black colleges and universities provided an enormous boost to talented black children over the years. These universities were at heart populist institutions, and demonstrated through well over a century that it was possible to provide this populist boost to smart kids while still maintaining the full measure of academic quality. They may not be doing as much of this as they used to or ought to be, but I suspect that UM in particular still has this magnetic attraction for a good many. And that is a Good Thing, IMHO. Education is far too important to be left to the rich alone.