Past U-M inauguration speeches have focused on values, visions


University of Michigan presidents through the years have used their inaugurations to reinforce the values of the academy, challenge professors and students to address pressing global issues and share their visions for the institution’s future.

Some have assumed office in the wake of social upheaval, such as war and the birth of atomic power. Others have looked inward and pressed the university community to move in new directions with its service and scholarship.

In one way or another, each president has voiced his or her answer to the question raised by Henry Tappan, U-M’s first president, in his inaugural address: “This young University, shall we not carry it forward to perfection?”

Henry Philip Tappan

First president
Dec. 21, 1852

“This young University, shall we not carry it forward to perfection? Is not the ambition worthy of a free and independent people which would make it one of the great Universities of the world, where all knowledges are to be found, where great and good men are to be reared up, and whence shall go forth the light and law of universal education?

“But to make this such an institution, what do we need? We need first of all to provide the full material of learning: our library must be enlarged so as to furnish all the helps of learning which are to be found in books; we need an observatory and a complete philosophical apparatus; our collections in natural history need to be extended; and collections in the fine arts to be begun and carried to a point to furnish the necessary models for artistic works. Then we want men, ripe scholars to fill the required professorships, and to carry on the course of lectures in the several departments.”

Erastus Otis Haven

Second president
Oct. 1, 1863

“The University of Michigan is only about twenty years old. Many of those far-seeing and patriotic men who projected it and watched over its infant growth, and to whose commanding position and influence in public affairs its existence is due, are still with us, wearing the well-won honors of a patriotic and Christian life. … The first friends of the University are permitted to see, on the foundation which their own hands have laid, a majestic fabric arise, whose proportions I believe will yet expand into a temple, more majestic even than their imaginations ever conceived.

“In spite of difficulties, and revocations of plans, and disappointments — no greater, however, than might be expected, in so complicated and so novel an enterprise — the University of Michigan stands before the world today, a vital proof that a state university can prosper and be made to accomplish all that an intelligent community can demands of such an institution.”

James Burrill Angell

Third president
June 28, 1871

“There is no more creditable chapter in American annals than that which records the liberality of our citizens to our institutions of learning. Never before has that liberality been so marked as during the last ten years. It may now be accepted as a settled principle in American life that no college of established strength and reputation, which is so conducted as to deserve to have its life continued, shall long lack for the supply of its substantial wants.

“But it is of vital consequence that this University, or any one which deserves the public favor, should be constantly improving in some respect. If it is resting on its laurels, if it is sitting down satisfied with its past achievements, if it is not incessantly asking ‘how can I do more or better work,’ it does not deserve to be favored or helped. It is in danger of dying of dry-rot.

“It is not well to have spasmodic periods of advance followed by decline. Every year should bring some gain. In this day of unparalleled activity in college life, the institution which is not steadily advancing is certainly falling behind.”

Harry Burns Hutchins

Fourth president

No record exists of an inaugural address by Hutchins, who succeeded Angell in 1910.

Marion Leroy Burton

Fifth president
Oct. 14, 1920

“The university man possesses his mind and soul in self-respect. He will brook no interference with his untrammeled search for truth in all fields. Regardless of the consequences to preconceived notions, prejudices or superstitions, he goes calmly on his way, patiently seeking for knowledge. His joy is to banish ignorance. His only fear is error; his deepest satisfaction is truth. He kneels at the shrine of truth.

“If one desires to understand the depth of this spirit, let him venture to rob the academic man of his freedom. Let one suggest that investigation shall be limited and the professor shall be muzzled if one desires to know how undying is his devotion to science and how inviolate are his ideals of freedom.

“No, the university, with all its shortcomings, stands as the impregnable citadel of truth. It can never be shaken without irreparable injury to society. In this era of industrial turmoil and social unrest, when mankind must cut its way through the twisted materials of a rudely shaken social order, the university, with its open and free search of truth, stands as the bulwark of civilization.”

Clarence Cook Little

Sixth president
Nov. 2, 1925

“One great change must come over all of us if our works and our descendants are to survive. The emphasis of our civilization and our criterion of success must be shifted from materially comfortable middle age to lean, fearless, idealistic and spiritual youth.

“Youth movements the world over are the somewhat pathetic and inadequate demands of youth for recognition, which it only sees at present as freedom from restraint. True progress towards ideals will come only when ‘civilization,’ so-called, becomes unselfish enough to center its hopes on and live its life for the next generation and not for the present.”

Alexander Grant Ruthven

Seventh president

Ruthven refused an inauguration. Rather, following his appointment on Oct. 6, 1929, he issued what became known as the Ruthven Platform.

“The office of the president has been unduly exalted; there is no regular method of bringing the deans together for action on matters of general University interest; and neither the deans, secretary, nor president can make important decisions ‘without calling a town meeting’ (much of the academic business being done by a complicated system of committees), and without having even details passed upon by a board which meets but once a month for ten months and which should be mostly concerned with major problems of finance.

“This curious organization, which distributes responsibility but not authority, is all the more strange when compared with the organization of large financial institutions and business and industrial concerns. I submit that in the interests of efficiency in administration, the secretary, the deans, and indeed the heads of all independent units should be given authority in proportion to the responsibility which is theirs; the executive officers should be called upon to determine collectively University policies; and the president should serve as the chairman of the faculties, instead of trying to function as a combination of educational expert, spanker of recalcitrant youngsters, business executive, salesman, and medicine man for the country at large.”

Harlan Henthorne Hatcher

Eighth president
Nov. 27, 1951

“We have awakened from the contented dreamworld of the previous century where the illusion was cherished that good would progressively overcome evil in the natural process of evolution. We know that evil is an active enemy of the good, and that it, too, is a dynamic thing, perpetuating itself, always treading on the heels of the good.

“Time presses us. Out of our increased knowledge and skills has come a massive power never before dreamed of as possible to mankind. Much of it has been born under the stress of heavy bludgeoning of war and destruction. It is a tragic irony of our imperfect state that the mention of atomic power should almost universally call up visions and memories of annihilating explosions and rising mushrooms of the ashes and dust of disaster.

“How to convert the power which is thus symbolized into an instrument of peace for the comfort and welfare of mankind is the challenge to this generation.”

Robben Wright Fleming

Ninth president
March 12, 1968

“The university is, by definition and tradition, a marketplace of ideas, and as such, controversy neither can nor should be avoided. Yet the halls of academe are populated by human beings, with all the normal human frailties. Students, and even faculty, can sometimes so lose their perspective that they seek to stifle views which differ from their own, or they impute to others motives less worthy than their own. … Perhaps most serious of all, the fabric of the university community itself is threatened.

“This is a time when a great international issue — the war in Vietnam — and a great domestic issue — race relations — divide our people. The realist would have to say that both issues are likely to get worse before they get better. The campus cannot be isolated from the mainstream of national life. It is predictable that strong differences of opinion will divide us.

“Is it too much to hope that in this home of the intellect we can conduct ourselves with dignity and respect? Or will we have to concede that the humanizing influences and values which we believe abound in the university are always betrayed in a time of stress? My dream, my belief, my commitment is that on this campus we can and will preserve our community in its time-honored values.”

Harold Tafler Shapiro

10th president
April 14, 1980

“The ultimate purpose of a general education is twofold. The first is to provide students with an understanding of what our society is, how it came to be that way, and how it relates to the larger human family. The second is to provide our students with that kind of knowledge and understanding that contributes to their ability to improve our concept of civilization, comprehending that the concrete present is but one alternative.  

“In this context it is clear that not only training in science, but scholarly exposure to history, literature, and philosophy have direct relevance to society’s most important goals: this knowledge puts our immediate concerns in the broadest possible human context. Without the understanding that flows from study in the humanities, we must fail to understand critical dimensions of the human experience and too easily deny the intractability of certain aspects of the human condition.”

James Johnson Duderstadt

11th president
Oct. 5, 1988

“If we do not create a nation that mobilizes the talents of all our citizens, we are destined for a diminished role in the global community, increased social turbulence, and most tragically, we will have failed to fulfill the promise of democracy upon which this nation was founded.

“This is probably the most serious challenge facing American society today. While it is true that universities cannot solve this problem alone, we must not use this fact as an excuse for doing nothing. Rather we must intensify our efforts to seek full participation of underrepresented minorities among our students, faculty, staff, and leadership.

“As both a reflection and leader of society at large, we have a special challenge and responsibility to develop effective models of multicultural, pluralistic communities for our nation. We must strive to achieve new levels of understanding, tolerance, and mutual fulfillment for peoples of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.”

Lee Carroll Bollinger

12th president
Sept. 19, 1997

“(A university’s) essential greatness, I believe, its most remarkable quality, lies in its 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.

“This 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 the wilderness. The University of Michigan is the intellectual equivalent of Yosemite National Park.”

Mary Sue Coleman

March 27, 2003
13th president

“The University of Michigan is engaged in an historic struggle to preserve admissions policies that serve the widest possible array of communities within the United States and the world. … The principle we are defending has become part of the fabric of our society, as reflected in the broad spectrum of support for our cases inside and outside the academy.

Everyone here today knows that the final legal battle is about to begin at the highest court in our nation. We are asking the court to affirm America, by re-affirming affirmative action.

“No matter what the outcome may be — as an institution, we shall remain committed to the ideal of a diversely interactive community, dedicated to the highest standards. If we win, we will have a hollow victory unless we renew our commitment to learning with, and learning from, diverse others every day, in every action, in every classroom, in every living arrangement, in every research and public service endeavor. The nation will be looking to the University of Michigan for leadership and inspiration, however the decision of the Court is crafted.”


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