As bicentennial nears, U-M offers courses in campus history


From learning about the first days of the university to examining campus protests against conditions at global factories producing maize-and-blue apparel, students are immersed in new courses designed to elevate an understanding of U-M’s historic role in American higher education.

As the university approaches its bicentennial in 2017, faculty in LSA are offering undergraduate courses that examine chapters of campus history as diverse as the evolving role of women students, the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and the moral quandaries of politics and academic freedom.

By the close of this semester, students will showcase people and episodes from the university’s past in several new websites and Wikipedia entries they have researched and created.

“We have to take more responsibility for the history of the University of Michigan ourselves,” said Terrence J. McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of history.

McDonald is teaching “22 Ways to Think About the History of the University of Michigan.” Joining him in exploring U-M’s past with students is Matthew D. Lassiter, associate professor of history, who is teaching “Global Activism at U-M: The Anti-War, Anti-Apartheid and Anti-Sweatshop Movements,” and Gary D. Krenz, adjunct lecturer in philosophy, whose philosophy course, “The University of Michigan: A Moral Institution?” examines the role of morality in education and student life.

‘Global Activism at U-M’

The university has long been known for student activism, and Lassiter’s course digs into three particularly vibrant movements of the last 50 years: the Vietnam War protests; the drive to end the university’s investments in racially segregated South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s; and the workers’ rights movement known as Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE), which advocated better working conditions in factories producing U-M clothing.

Demonstrators protesting U-M’s investments in racially segregated South Africa rally in April 1987. (Photo courtesy of the Ann Arbor District Library)

The students — the majority of whom are history majors — are interviewing participants in the different movements, gathering university records, and delving into campus archives, most notably the Bentley Historical Library and the Labadie Collection, a social movements collection at the Hatcher Graduate Library. 

By the end of the semester, student teams will have produced websites that share original materials and showcase how each activist movement unfolded.

“We want to go beyond learning about history and involve undergraduates in the production of history,” said Lassiter. “It’s an experimental course and it’s a lot of work.”

“Global Activism at U-M” is the first offering of Michigan in the World, a new public history project sponsored by the history department and the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies. During the next three years, undergraduate teams will use their course time to create online presentations of U-M history using official documents, video, oral histories, photographs, maps and more.

While the sites — each essentially a digital version of a museum exhibit — will be designed as a resource for high school and college classes, the content will be publically available.

Lassiter said he has been struck by the continuous intersection of U-M students and global events, and how the history of the university is tied to happenings far beyond U.S. borders.

He added that students in the course gain skills that will be important to their careers, whether as historians or in other fields. That includes sorting through data, learning about copyright and other legal issues such as the Freedom of Information Act, presenting information in a cogent way, and designing websites.

22 ways

In its 198 years, U-M has grown from an experiment in the Northwest Territory to a global research university. The university played a significant role in the development of American higher education, and today it is routinely ranked among the best in the world, McDonald said. The question he poses to students is, “How did that happen?”

His class is part of the LSA Sophomore Initiative, with each “22 Ways” course featuring guest lectures from different faculty examining a topic from 22 diverse points of view. It is a way to expose students to the various disciplines of a liberal arts education.

McDonald places strong emphasis on women students and faculty through the years and the overall status of students as the university evolved.

Female medical students — aka “hen medics” work in a dissection room in 1893. (Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library)

A number of U-M faculty and administrators are guests in McDonald’s class. Karla Goldman, Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work, lectured on Jews at U-M and Jewish student quotas in higher education. Dr. Joel Howell, the Victor Vaughn Collegiate Professor of the history of Medicine, provided insight about the evolution of medical education at U-M, from a one-year program (with no prerequisites) to a more rigorous one with admission requirements, greater emphasis on science than other universities, and hands-on experience in clinics and labs.   

McDonald led students on a walking tour of U-M’s original 40 acres (on a historically bone-chilling February day) in preparation for a lecture by Kristin Hass, associate professor of American culture, on the sacred nature afforded to campus buildings, particularly by students and alumni.

As the course continues in the second half of the winter semester, students will hear from faculty with expertise in women’s studies, public policy, intercollegiate athletics, higher education funding, as well as from former presidents James J. Duderstadt and Mary Sue Coleman and former provost and dean of libraries Paul Courant. Archivists from the Bentley Library and librarians from the Hatcher Library provide one-on-one time with students.

To both understand and share U-M history, each student is writing a research paper about historic U-M regents, faculty or staff members that will lead to an entry on Wikipedia. Archivists provided the names of dozens of individuals who have holdings at the Bentley but have little online presence. These include such faculty and administrators as sociologist Robert Cooley Angell, historian Sidney Fine, musician George Cacioppo, and the longest-serving dean of women, Alice Crocker Lloyd.

McDonald himself is researching Dr. Elizabeth M. Farrand, a Medical School alumna and U-M librarian who in 1885 wrote one of the first histories of the university.

The moral university

As executive director of the Bicentennial Office, Krenz is charged with the celebration and examination of U-M’s 200 years. As a philosophy instructor, he is showing students the different ways to examine the university’s moral responsibilities.

Krenz draws upon the thinking of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill to help students explore the ethical dimensions of university life.

“Students will spend somewhere between three and five years at Michigan — perhaps longer if they stay on for graduate school,” Krenz said. “I ask them, ‘What is good, right and just about Michigan, and what is not?’ And what steps can they take to make their time here, the academic community and the university more good, right and just?”

Ethical issues covered by the class include animal research, admissions policies, cheating, a student code of conduct, sexual assault policies, and the university’s financial investments. Two troubling episodes in U-M history also come under the microscope:

• Fairness, inclusiveness and the 1934 benching of football player Willis Ward based on his skin color. Ward was the lone African American on the U-M football team; when opponent Georgia Tech refused to compete if he was allowed to take the field, U-M Athletic Director Fielding Yost told Ward not to dress for the game. The incident has remained vivid because the benching was strongly opposed by Ward’s teammate and best friend — Gerald R. Ford, who shared the story as president.

Willis Ward (61) and Gerald Ford (48) were football teammates at U-M. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

• Academic freedom and the 1954 suspension of three faculty members — H. Chandler Davis, Clement L. Markert and Mark Nickerson — who refused to testify about their political associations before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Davis, a mathematician, and Nickerson, a tenured pharmacologist, eventually were fired.

Besides learning moral theory and applying it to such cases, students are asked to undertake group projects that engage them with current ethical issues at Michigan or in higher education. In addition to teaching students about their university, Krenz said the class builds personal philosophical skills such as sound argumentation and systematic thinking. 



  1. Helen Peters
    on March 23, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    I believe that Fielding Yost was Athletic Director in 1943 & Harry Kipke was football coach.
    My understanding is that Yost made the decision about Willis Ward not playing in the game vs Georgia Tech.
    If I’m correct, both the article & the photo captain need revision.

    • James Iseler
      on March 23, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      Thank you. The article has been corrected.

  2. David Erdody
    on March 24, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    I very much hope that the recording of the lecture Sidney Fine gave on the genesis of the 1967 Detroit riots is featured. It is Sidney Fine at his best for all to hear.

  3. Stephen Bonesteel
    on September 19, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Very interesting read. It’s exciting to be part of such a diverse and boundary pushing school.

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