Last week marked moving-in day at college campuses all around Michigan. Normally, the start of term is a time of happy confusion: Excited kids going off to college, and anxious and proud parents wondering what the next few months will bring.
But campus suddenly felt much more contentious this season.
Last week a Michigan State University English professor, William Penn, was banned from teaching classes after an anti-Republican rant before a creative writing class was videotaped and brought to the attention of university authorities. Penn contended that Republicans “raped the country,” that America is “full of closet racists” and that “if you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them.”
That may be creative writing in Penn’s mind, but it wouldn’t seem to have much to do with teaching or his subject. A videotape of his remarks were circulated to Republican officials and posted online by Campus Reform, a conservative group based in Virginia.
Responding, MSU officials said Penn had met with university officials to discuss the matter and that he “acknowledged some of his comments were inappropriate and offensive.” He has academic tenure, which means he won’t get fired, but he won’t be teaching for a while … which, on the face of it, seems appropriate.
And earlier last week, the University of Michigan announced receiving its largest-ever single gift, $200 million from real estate developer, philanthropist and U-M alumnus, Stephen M. Ross.
Half that money will go to the Ross School of Business (named after a previous gift of $100 million) and half to the Michigan Athletic Department. Ordinarily, such a remarkably generous act brings praise and delight, from Maize and Blue loyalists as well as most anybody else who cares about universities in this state.
But some folks, including Detroit News columnist Laura Berman, pointed out that neither Michigan’s business school nor its athletic department were in danger of being strapped for cash.
“No future doctors, engineers, biologists, teachers or social workers will likely be touched by Ross’ beneficence. Honors College students — the best and brightest of the liberal arts undergrads — reside at West Quad, a 1937 dormitory lacking an elevator,” she noted. Berman, herself a Michigan alumna, is quite right, of course.
Yet it seems churlish to put down Mr. Ross for his generosity and unrealistic to blame the University for agreeing to the priorities expressed in his gift. I remember many years ago when my family was considering making what was back then a major gift to U-M. The student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, grumbled that our gift should have gone to libraries or scholarships, instead of funding a center for the performing arts. I thought then — and do now — that, dammit, it’s our money and we’re entitled to say where it should go.
Universities are on the hot seat these days, criticized for elitism (it’s elitist to play your best football player as quarterback?) and unresponsiveness to social needs (educating our young people is unresponsive to our society?)
They and their students have had a rough time over the past decade. State support for public universities in Michigan has fallen farther than almost anywhere else, possibly one reason why West Quad hasn’t been renovated. Infantile, offensive remarks, such as those made by the professor at Michigan State, and grumbling about donor priorities are unlikely motivate policy makers in Lansing to do any favors for the universities involved.
Last Friday morning I took two first-year women students — apparently the gender-neutral term is “freshfolk” — on a tour of the Ann Arbor campus. We walked past the ESPN Game Day set going up on the Mall, through the Law School quadrangle, into the massive reading room at the library. Students we encountered were happy.
They were caught up in their classes, looking forward to the Notre Dame football game. My two young friends walked around with eyes wide and sparkling. “What a great place to learn and live and grow up,” one exclaimed. I’m looking around for a generous donor to fund campus tours for freshfolk and sitting lawmakers.
They could spend money in worse ways.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.