The University Record, September 24, 1997

The Inauguration of Lee C. Bollinger

President recommends 5 principles to guide, inform future

Bollinger


By Jane R. Elgass

In an address that was at times upbeat and humorous, emotional and reflective, Lee C. Bollinger last week recommended five principles he said "ought to guide us and inform our choices in the years ahead."

Bollinger's address (address.htm) in Hill Auditorium followed his official installation as the University's 12th president during a ceremony attended by more than 4,000 members of the University and greater communities.

Bollinger said that while some of the principles would apply to universities in general, "all are specifically directed at Michigan. I have spoken about some of these matters before, but as I grow older, I seem to become more and more conscious of the virtues of repetition at least with respect to deepening our understanding of core beliefs and values."

The principles touch on the intellectual character of a university and the need for those who are members to suspend belief, a public university's special responsibilities and challenges, the importance of faculty autonomy, the need for a "transparent administration," and the necessity of "making our history visible."

The Principle of Suspension of Belief

This principle touches on the University's distinctive intellectual character, "a living culture that values and expresses the joy in intellectually and artistically scratching the surface of the world and in reveling in the exploration of its complexity," Bollinger said, noting he feels that is the University's "most remarkable quality."

Being part of that culture, he said, "involves a hard-won capacity of suspending one's own beliefs and of risking the unnerving feeling of losing one's own identity in the process, a capacity of crossing into other sensibilities and, accordingly, of residing in foreign worlds. In this intellectual and emotional venturesomeness the university bears a similarity to the discomforting experience demanded in wilderness. The University of Michigan is the intellectual equivalent of Yosemite National Park."

"This special mentality," he said, "is more than a posture of skepticism, more than a technique for discovering truth and less than an ideal way to live a whole life. . . . The University has its commitments, and politics its enjoyment of openness to the unknown. But there is a very real difference of emphasis and degree, and one that matters."

"The University of Michigan has been an epicenter of idealism, especially in periods of deep social conflict in America. . . . Such periods of political passion will occur again and, when they do, the pressures on the University to commit itself in the political turmoil will be intense. It is wise that we say now that these pressures must be resisted, not because a Swiss-like neutrality is necessary to institutional survival, not because the university has no concern with politics or with political questions; and not because we in the university are uncaring about the consequences of political decisions. Rather," he said, "it is because the special mentality of suspension of belief and constant exploration of complexity has itself a higher political and social significance, not least of which is to issue a continuous warning even for those who would grasp the standard of idealism and improve the society. For the ends we pursue do not innoculate us against the disease of intolerance."

The Principle of Publicness

"A public university," Bollinger said, "is thought to be a distinct species in the United States.

"To be a public university is to be bound by the U.S. Constitution. It is to be more rooted, emotionally, in a locale. It is to be committee, not as a matter of choice but rather of permanent commitment, to offering and to developing opportunities for access to education without regard to divisions of class, parentage or social status. And it is also concerned with providing students with access to an education arising form interaction with as many segments of American life as is possible.

"Publicness, I would add today, also is in need of special protections, even constitutional protections, and here Michigan offers a very helpful example. There has been a working principle in this country," the president said, "that academic institutions, even though they are supported by the state, should not be subjected to political interference, at least with respect to basic decisions about what to teach and what to research and on general matters of educational policy. But this idea has had difficulty in making its way into law."

Citing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, now battling for federal support, Bollinger said "this working principle needs to be extended to other public institutions of culture . . . and should be elevated to a First Amendment requirement, providing public institutions of culture with constitutional protections against political interference in the content of academic decision-making, even thought the state provides funding for the institution."

The Principle of Faculty Autonomy

Noting that the decentralization of decision-making and the autonomy of the faculty with respect to teaching and research are viewed by some as "anachronistic and inefficient" and may make change more difficult, Bollinger said "the most astonishing fact about our universities is the degree of personal responsibility, of personal engagement with one's work, that characterizes the overwhelming majority of our faculty. It is this kind of sense of personal empowerment within a large organization that is so hard to create and, that is, I believe, more likely to make an institution succeed over the long term. . . . In this particular characteristic," he added, "universities share some of the genius that inspires our commitment to a democratic form of government."

The Principle of the Transparent Administration

Citing the tendency of the modern university toward bureaucracy and noting that "creativity abhors bureaucracy," Bollinger said we must understand that the "function of an administration within the university is to take that attitude we will do everything we can to make ourselves and the system, whatever it happens to be, transparent or invisible to our faculty and students as they set about suspending belief and pursuing complexity."

"We must remember at all times that the very qualities we talk about and regard as at the core identity of the university the sense of intellectual venturesomeness I referred to at the outset, the desire to nurture students, and so on these qualities are not, and never will be, created by incentives."

The administrators of the University, Bollinger added, "will be most successful if they operate as much as possible on a system of trust and cooperation and on a principle that we serve faculty and students best when what we do is invisible to the academic eye."

The Principle of Making Our History Visible

The University of Michigan, Bollinger feels, "has let too much of its heritage slip by the wayside," but recapturing that "illustrious history" can be done with time.

"It is vital that we come to understand, to truly appreciate, that to make one's history visible is part of taking oneself seriously."