The University Record, November 2, 1998


Alum doesn’t want U acting on his behalf

The Oct. 14 issue of the Record reports on a recent “Day of Dialog with Parker Palmer.” I’m not convinced, from what I read in that article, that Mr. Parker’s bland sloganeering could have been worth a whole day of anyone’s time, but one of his reported remarks did catch my attention: “We need to establish these new ground rules if we are going to move to a community of discourse the world is calling us to create.”

An article in the Oct. 7 issue about a talk given by Nancy Cantor, the University’s provost, describes her position thusly: “ . . . universities really are ‘grand societal experiments’ in which we do things for society that it would like to do but can’t.” This construal of the University’s ultimate function is also expressed in an article in the Oct. 14 issue: “Universities . . . social experiments that allow a certain sense of autonomy, that permit and encourage experimentation with forms of social relationships ‘that are hard to do outside our walls. Society allows us and we have a special privilege and responsibility to work out rules of interaction,’ Cantor said.”

I would like to answer those points and their underlying attitudes. I am speaking for society and for the world as well as for myself. I address my comments to Ms. Cantor and Mr. Palmer and others within their esoteric circles.

As a citizen of the United States of America and of the world, I have a certain responsibility to participate in the shaping of our future. I have not delegated that responsibility to you. I am not urging you to create a “community of discourse” wherein you can be my proxy. I, too, can “work out rules of interaction,” and I have not given you any “special privilege” to do that for me.

The University of Michigan, as a university, is still, amazingly enough, a fine thing. But as a “grand societal experiment,” it is, in fact, an insult to the admittedly dwindling intelligence of the society that supports it.

Larry R. Kostecke, LS&A ’77, Goodrich, Mich.


Defining first sometimes difficult

I take issue with the statement in the Sept. 23 Record declaring that George Palmer Williams was “the University’s first faculty member.”

At the Regents meeting of July 17, 1838, Dr. Asa Gray was appointed professor of botany and zoology, making him the “first permanent paid professor in the history of the university.” His official appointment, however, read merely “Professor of Botany,” thus giving him “the first chair devoted exclusively to botany in an American educational institution.” (See Dupree, Asa Gray, Harvard Univ. Press. 1959.)

As there were no students yet enrolled, Gray was given a year’s salary and a budget of $5,000 to buy books in Europe for the University’s library, a task he completed with distinction. These now bear special bookplates (insofar as they remain in the library—over 3,000 of them!). He received another year’s salary simply for his non-resident advice, and since there continued to be no students, was on leave without salary until his resignation was accepted by the Regents in 1842, Gray having accepted an appointment at Harvard. (See Bidlack, “The Nucleus of a Library,” Univ. Mich. Dept. Library Sci., 1962.)

Prof. Williams may have been the first actually to instruct students in Ann Arbor and is undoubtedly a distinguished person in the University’s history, but Asa Gray’s prior appointment was still officially in effect at the time that Williams received his. (See also Bartlett, “Asa Gray’s Non-resident Professorship,” Mich. Alumnus Quart. Rev. 47: 215-226. 1941.)

Edward G. Voss, professor emeritus of botany and curator emeritus, Herbarium

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