Advice for Schlissel: History matters

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Today, Mark Schlissel is installed as the 14th  president of the University of Michigan. We welcome him to Ann Arbor. In the time-honored tradition of busybody neighbors, we want to give him some advice. He didn’t ask for it, he might not want it or need it. But we hope he’ll take a few minutes and read it. Ann Arbor’s full of hypersmart, outspoken people. That’s a big part of what makes this place amazing. Enjoy, and join in the fun! 

Wystan Stevens near the James B. Angell ​gargoyle ​at the Law Quad | Benjamin Weatherston

Wystan Stevens near the James B. Angell ​gargoyle ​at the Law Quad | Benjamin Weatherston

Ann Arbor historian Wystan Auden Stevens is an Ann Arbor native, a graduate of the public schools and of the University of Michigan — where his father was a long-time member of the English Department faculty. Wystan is a godson of the late British-American poet W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden), a friend of his parents, who was poet-in-residence at the university during the 1941-42 academic year.

Dear President Schlissel,

 Welcome home, to Ann Arbor. As you jumpstart a new chapter in Michigan’s history, we’re enjoying your good humor and the alacrity with which you have seized the reins of the venerable office. Already you have joined a procession of a dozen noble men — and one noble woman — who have filled the leadership role in a line stretching back to Henry Philip Tappan (1852-63).

 Tappan’s eventual successor — and great admirer — James B. Angell, arrived in 1871. Like you, Angell had an earlier teaching career at Brown. He also edited a newspaper, the Providence Journal, for several years. But in 1870, Angell was president of the University of Vermont, in the civilized East, reluctant to give up his creature comforts for life on Michigan’s rough frontier. You have already heard that the regents finally persuaded him to come by promising to expand the President’s House and to install an indoor flush toilet — which, legend holds, was the very first one in Ann Arbor.

I once heard Harlan Hatcher, president from 1951 to 1967, tell an audience at Rackham that when he came to Ann Arbor, the Angell-era plumbing was still intact. “The water for my shower one morning came down before I turned it on,” Hatcher said. (May the presidency be as good to you as it was to Hatcher, who enjoyed a vigorous retirement, and lived to be 99.)

 Angell held the reins longer than anybody, serving from 1871 to 1909. He tried to retire at 70, then at 75, but the regents wouldn’t listen, and kept him in harness till 80, when they finally took pity and let him go. (Angell lived to 88 — enjoying a life tenure in the house you are about to occupy.)

As you explore the campus and downtown Ann Arbor, you will notice that we have placed a great number of photographic glass panels — and porcelain wall panels — on the streets and buildings, to orient you historically to your new surroundings. Naturally, you will be eager to find out what has happened here before your arrival on the scene.

Most of your predecessors have left memoirs or autobiographies which afford glimpses (often entertaining) of their tenures in your office. Histories of the university abound — some of them dull, others lively and fun. For specifics on various subjects, there is the university’s “Encyclopedic Survey,” which has been updated from time to time, although later volumes exist only in typescript. Most of the histories of Ann Arbor, the university and Washtenaw County may be accessed online, at the Ann Arbor District Library’s “Making of Ann Arbor” website — moaa.aadl.org. (If anyone happens to be reading this over your shoulder, they too may enjoy exploring these resources.)

Of course, it is understood that none of these readings are required, especially of presidents. But you will earn extra credit.


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