Miller Symposium reflects commitment to U-M history
Bollinger’s ongoing crusade: to reconnect University with its past
News Staff Reporter

Ann Arbor News, Oct. 22, 2000
    A framed, handwritten note hangs on the wall in Lee Bollinger’s office.
    The missive is from playwright Arthur Miller, expressing his pleasure at having a theater named after him at the University of Michigan, his alma mater.
    “The theater is a lovely idea,” said Miller, who wrote his first play during his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. “It seems right for Ann Arbor.”
    The note itself is nothing special, written in barely legible scrawl on a 3-by-5 card. Its literary merits are, of course, negligible compared to the seismic impact of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”
    But its prominence on the wall speaks volumes about a larger effort that Bollinger has undertaken since being inaugurated as U-M president in 1997: Reconnecting U-M with its past, particularly its most prominent alumni and faculty.
The initiative reaches one of its high points this week with the Arthur Miller Symposium, a three-day event kicking off Thursday that includes seminars, performances and a keynote address by the 85-year-old Miller. But the symposium is by no means an isolated example of Bollinger’s ongoing crusade, which began from the moment he took office.
    “This university, in particular, has let too much of its heritage slip by the wayside,” Bollinger said at his Hill Auditorium inaugural speech. “It is vital that we come to understand … that to make one’s history is part of taking oneself seriously.”
    Since Bollinger uttered those words, U-M has seen:
    • The proposal for the 600-seat Arthur Miller Theater, to be part of the Walgreen Drama Center being built next door to the Power Center. One sign of Miller’s importance to the university: This week’s symposium is co-sponsored by an especially broad cross-section of 15 departments, from the provost’s office to the theater department.
    • The September renaming of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. By linking the 86-year-old government to the nation’s 38th president (and 1935 Wolverine graduate), U-M hopes to increase its respectability and prominence.
    •Bollinger’s often-spoken desire to honor poet Robert Frost, whose 1921-26 stay in Ann Arbor included a stint as U-M’s first poet-in-residence. The university has even talked to the curators of Greenfield Village about buying one of Frost’s Ann Arbor houses, which was moved from Pontiac Trail years ago. In an interview last week, Bollinger said he would like to build a Robert Frost house that would host poetry readings and be “a place dedicated to writing.” The structure could even be built as a replica of Frost’s former home. Bollinger said Dartmouth College, his former employer, gives Frost more prominence on campus than Frost does – even though the poet dropped out of the New Hampshire school after only three months, while some of his best-known works (including, ironically, “New Hampshire”)were written in Ann Arbor.
    Are all these efforts just idle name-dropping? Not to Bollinger, who says elevating the presence of prominent U-M’s figures is important to U-M’s academic mission.
    “Public universities, in general, have failed to capture their history and hold on to it,” he said. “The connection that you make emotionally to what has happened before you … can help you realize your potential.”
    Frances Blouin, director of U-M’s Bentley Library agrees with that philosophy.
    “One of the challenges is to give students a sense of the intellectual tradition they’ve been part of,” said Blouin, chairman of the school’s history and traditions committee, a group charged with finding ways to better publicize the 183-year-old school’s history. “What we’re trying to do is to bring these people to the fore more regularly and institutionally.”
    U-M professor Enoch Brater said students may get additional inspiration from learning the life stories of U-M’s illustrious alumni. Ford’s birth father was abusive, while Miller came to Ann Arbor in the 1930’s as a middling student with little literary background or cash in his pocket.
    “It’s important to show what the value of higher education is, particularly to students that may not have as high backgrounds,” said Brater, organizer of this week’s Miller symposium.
    Robert M. Warner, emeritus dean of of U-M’s School of Information, said an active effort is needed to keep history alive. That includes naming buildings and other institutions in someone’s honor to give that person a spot in the university’s pantheon. That has not happened yet in the case of Frost, whose link to Ann Arbor is still largely unknown – nearly eight decades after Frost’s arrival caused a local ice cream parlor to sell chocolate-covered “Frost Bites.”
    “He certainly was never forgotten, I think,” said Warner, a Frost scholar. “But he didn’t receive any spatial recognition.”
    Beyond the most prominent figures in U-M history, Bollinger said he would like individual schools to and departments to find ways to recognize lesser-known scientists, educators and artistrs who passed through the University of Michigan hallways.
    There is a flip side. Bollinger said he once heard that poet Donald Hall, a Harvard-based writer who briefly stayed in Ann Arbor, loved his anonymous existence at U-M.
    “He felt stimulated by the absence of identity,” Bollinger said. “You can overdo this … (But) we are so far away from that danger.”
Reporter Rob Hoffman covers the University of Michigan. He can be reached at (734) 994-6814; email at