Toasting 200 years of leadership by the University of Michigan

It may be hard to believe, but the University of Michigan was founded exactly two centuries ago, in August 1817 … two decades before we became a state.

And the university and the state’s destinies have been entwined ever since. It all started on Aug. 26, 1817, when the territorial legislature approved an act to establish a "University of Michigan" creating "colleges, academies, schools, libraries, museums ... and other useful literary and scientific institutions, consonant to the laws of the United States of America and of Michigan."

Michigan had fewer than 7,000 people in 1817. At first, the university was designated to be in Detroit. But little happened and no classes were held, and in 1837, the year Michigan became a state, it was moved to Ann Arbor, to land donated by the city for the purpose.

The embryo U-M’s distinctive nature as a research university was also set at its founding, when the legislature called for a "Cabinet of Natural History" for the campus, which led to collections of geological, mineralogical, botanical and zoological specimens that set the stage for today’s high-powered research programs.

Remarkably, though a lot has changed in two centuries, the school’s core mission has not. University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel told the state House Appropriations Committee this March, "from the moment (the U of M) was established in 1817, our institution was designed to be a resource whose sole purpose was enhancing the public good."

Seems to me "enhancing the public good" is about as terse and clear a mission statement as there is. Two hundred years is a long, long time for any institution to survive, and this one now serves 60,000 students on three campuses, Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint.

And the university has not only survived, but prospered far beyond what must have been the wildest dreams of the founders.


  • Today, the University of Michigan has almost 500,000 living alumni. Alumni over the years have included a U.S. President, two dozen governors, three Supreme Court Justices, eight Nobel laureates and the winningest quarterback in the history of the NFL.

  • The university's research program is the largest among all public universities ‒ $1.4 billion last year. The range of subjects under investigation is vast. There's a good chance, for example, that when self-driving cars are standard, U of M research will have helped power the change.

  • The university is a national leader in training physicians who save lives in hospitals and communities all over Michigan, the nation and the world.

  • Over the years, the university has instituted programs that have reduced or avoided expenses totaling $337 million, an amount that now exceeds the annual appropriation from the state. This expense reduction program has been aimed at keeping tuition increases down and avoiding program cuts.

  • Last month, the university announced a free tuition plan for all in-state students whose family incomes are less than $65,000 per year. The idea is to make concrete the idea that a university education is available to every qualified student, regardless of family income. U-M has also for years arranged for vast amounts of aid for all in-state students who could demonstrate financial need.

  • The university has been a leader in student and faculty activism. U-M faculty members helped write the founding Social Security legislation as we struggled to emerge from the Great Depression. And in 1960, a group of Michigan students proposed the idea of Americans volunteering to serve developing countries abroad ‒ an idea taken up by President John F. Kennedy that led directly to the Peace Corps.

President Schlissel told the legislature earlier this spring the University "will work as hard as we can to foster the innovation and provide the human capital that will power Michigan's future. ... It's the ability to attract educate and retain the people who give birth to (great) ideas that is our greatest asset, and from my point of view, the greatest opportunity for the U-M.  It's the rising talent, and the companies who employ that talent, that we can leverage, together, to ensure our future."  

I've always felt that investments in human capital ‒ the net total of knowledge, skills, insight and understanding ‒ pay dividends at a far higher rate than any other investment.

It's no secret that I'm a Michigan graduate and a former member of the Board of Regents who bleeds maize and blue. While I was a regent back in the 1990's, I wrote a "State of the University" letter to thousands of stakeholders in our state every year. In my last letter before I left the board, I suggested that when future historians get around to looking at the 20th Century, they will conclude that the signature creation of American society was to create and sustain seriously excellent public universities.

By "public universities," I meant those with an explicit commitment to all members of our society and, thereby the willingness to take a fundamental role in providing an engine for those with talent and energy and for our society as a whole.

Those purposes remain at the core of the American dream, and the University of Michigan has played an important part in helping our state realize them for so many years.

So, Happy Birthday, Big Blue!

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Tue, 07/25/2017 - 7:53am

Please have U of M's econ department explain how giving free tuition to some students doesn't just amount to taking extra tuition from others.

Roger Williams
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 11:52am

"Please have U of M's econ department explain how giving free tuition to some students doesn't just amount to taking extra tuition from others."

1) in a CLOSED system of dynamics, your comment MIGHT make sense;

2) the UM endowment is NOT a closed system, it is OPEN. How is it open? UM explicitly raised money to fund scholarships. At this juncture, over 20% of the endowment ($2 billion or so) was explicitly raised for and earmarked for scholarships.

3) Given #2 above, there isn't a compartmentalized endogenous effect or zero sum game where one student transfer wealth to another: a) the endowment makes the transfer at the bequest of donors, so the transfer is donor to student (NOT student to student); b) the capital markets accretion of annual wealth and additional contributions further leaves the system OPEN.

Let's be clear, $65,000 is the median income in Michigan and the cutoff of full funding, so that span benefits the "lower (economic" class" as well as half of the middle class. Further, the program runs up to $125,000 a year in family income so there are partial benefits for people well beyond the middle class.

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 7:55am

Roger there is zero evidence that donations aren't in effect a closed systems. How much money donated to the the athletic department wouldn't have been donated to the U in any event? And then originally budgeted funds are re-allocated for other purposes? Are you saying scholarships "dedicated" for one area aren't twisted around to be used to accomplish any other purpose? You can't bet that naive, all multi-department/level beauracracies do this, colleges and government entites just tend to do it a little more . Further entire idea that a family making $64K is destitute and the family making $66 or $70 or $80 has money galore? No this is just classic posturing to blunt some critiscism .

Michael Ritenour
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 11:17am

Thanks, Phil, for the concise history of the University and some of its many, many accomplishments. I'm also a proud Wolverine and will be participating in the Bicentennial events this year (my 40 year Homecoming Game not the least of them). We are fortunate to have such an institution in this state, and need to continue to support it and all of Michigan's public colleges and universities (even, as much as it pains me to say, Little Brother...).

Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/26/2017 - 1:15pm

Other readers have already commented on U of M playing fast-and-loose with their "free" tuition hype, but what struck me was this alleged achievement:

"The university has been a leader in student and faculty activism. U-M faculty members helped write the founding Social Security legislation as we struggled to emerge from the Great Depression."

So not only did "educated" people concoct a scheme that the federal government had ABSOLUTELY no business being involved with in the first place, but it felt that creating a system in which people would be paid back generously by a latter group of "donors" was in any way sustainable in the long term.

I wonder what would happen if I tried to do something so fiscally reckless?

Oh wait, nevermind!

And before someone wants to take to their keyboards to praise the "success" of Social Security, read on.

"The Social Security Board of Trustees today released its annual report on the long-term financial status of the Social Security Trust Funds. The combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, one year later than projected last year, with 79 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund will become depleted in 2016, unchanged from last year’s estimate, with 81 percent of benefits still payable."

I may not have a degree in economics, but at least I know that you cannot pay anyone if there is nothing to pay them with.

Friendly suggestion to Mr. Power: I would highly recommend never mentioning U of M's involvement in this ticking financial time-bomb ever again.