The University Record, November 16, 1992

5 presidents look back on 4 decades of campus life

By Mary Jo Frank

Five University presidents, whose leadership has spanned more than four decades, last Tuesday shared insights on a variety of topics, including student life and public financing of higher education.

President James J. Duderstadt (1988–present) and past presidents Harlan H. Hatcher (1951–67), Robben W. Fleming (1968–79), Allan F. Smith (1979) and Harold T. Shapiro (1980–87) reminisced with a Rackham Auditorium audience of more than 300 as part of the University’s 175th anniversary celebration. University Historian Robert M. Warner moderated the discussion.

U-M students frequently are remembered for their escapades, Hatcher said. However, since the 1850s U-M grads have provided a pool of leadership for practically every position and country in the world.

“I have also observed,” Hatcher said, “that each one of these generations of students is a different group, that the University is of all things an absolutely living, changing organism, never the same from one group to the next, never the same from one decade to the next.”

Hatcher said one of the biggest changes in student life came with the admission of women, which was spiritedly debated in the 1860s.

He quoted President Erastus O. Haven, who in 1867 observed: “Youth is a transitional period when passion is strong and restraint is feeble, and if, just at this period, multitudes of both sexes are massed together, not in families and not restrained by the discipline of the home circle, consequences anomalous and not to be cultivated by an Institution supported by the State are likely to occur.”

Today, Hatcher noted, women make up nearly 50 percent of the U-M student body.

Fleming recalled that when he came to the U-M in 1967 there was great unrest among young people all over the country. “There was the Vietnam War, which was very unpopular and which was troubling them. ... The civil rights movement was full blown.”

Even peaceful demonstrations were difficult to deal with if you had significant numbers involved, Fleming said. Although on occasions there were substantial numbers, up to 2,000, most of the time only 50 to 200 students—less than 1 percent of the total student body—were engaged in disruptive activities.

“I already knew I had a defective character, but I hadn’t known I was a fascist pig before, or that I was a male chauvinist pig,” Fleming said. “But I knew I had defects of character and intelligence when I came. Therefore, I could absorb quite a lot of name-calling and insults, which they used to explain to me periodically, saying, ‘nothing personal about this.’”

Recalling the criticism he received for not cracking down on student demonstrators, Fleming said the problem with using force is that it can easily get out of control.

Shapiro, who also had to cope with student demonstrations, said he was struck by the realization that even when the administration seemed under siege, classes were meeting as usual not far away.

He recalled a time when demonstrators were picketing in front of the President’s House on South University. One of the demonstrators—a faculty member—knocked on the door and asked if he could use the phone to let his family know he’d be late because of the demonstration.

“It reminds me of how human all of this is,” said Shapiro, now president of Princeton University.

Duderstadt agreed with his predecessors that each generation of students has its own character, adding that the current group represents the most diverse in the history of the U-M in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, economic backgrounds and geographic areas from which they come. This “richness” brings a vitality to campus, enlivens the campus and challenges faculty, Duderstadt said. He anticipates the student body will become even more diverse as the U-M evolves into a global university.

Duderstadt and the former presidents expressed concern about the shift away from public financing of higher education and the effect that shift is having on the U-M and its students.

A fundamental principle of financing higher education, Duderstadt said, has been that since the graduates benefit all of society, society should bear the cost of education. It appears this public principle has been abandoned by public leaders in Lansing and Washington, D.C., he added.

Smith, who served as interim president, said it is only due to the strength of the institution that the U-M has survived despite a decline in state support since 1960.

“We will not maintain our status as a great university unless we find other sources of support,” predicted Smith.

Concerned about the financial burden that increasing tuition costs are placing on students, both Fleming and Shapiro recalled that they were able to graduate from college without incurring debt.

Even in the 1930s, Fleming said, students could work their way through college by getting a room-and-board job and earning tuition with a summer job. Now, many graduates are starting their adult life with substantial debt. They are not in a position to have a family or buy a house. “I worry about the impact of that,” Fleming said.