In 2017 the University of Michigan will celebrate its 200th birthday. But just what and who it chooses to celebrate is not so straightforward. 

The university could tout a whole laundry list of accomplishments in research, teaching, and athletics: Nobel Prizes, MacArthur “genius grants,” top-ten academic rankings, and national championships. It could name-drop stars from its massive alumni network—among the world’s largest—a veritable who’s who of movers and shakers. 

But lists are not histories, and they do little to foster understanding of the past, let alone the future. U-M’s bicentennial planners have something much more interesting in mind, and History faculty are helping to lead the way.

“Most of our U-M community simply does not know much about the university’s history, whether prideful or shameful, and the bicentennial is a great opportunity to try to fix that,” said Gary Krenz, executive director of the U-M Bicentennial.

But there is inherent tension in this endeavor.

Take the history of women at U-M. The first women students enrolled in 1870, but more than a century later, in 1980, only 11 percent of LSA’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members were women. A forty-year effort from faculty, staff, and students—including lawsuits, teach-ins, grassroots organization, and other efforts to push university administrators to take action—has raised the current number to nearly 40 percent. That’s quite a leap. But what work remains to be done?

Is this a success story or a reminder of shortcomings from the past? Should the university, as an institution, take credit for this change, when it was in fact led by individuals pushing back against the institution itself? 

Krenz, who lectures in the Department of Philosophy, acknowledges these questions: “Are we celebrating or are we examining? Commending or critiquing? Writing institutional history—or better, histories—or propounding institutional myth?”

The answer? All of the above. There is no one history, let alone a single institutional history.  

“There’s always a tension between how much you emphasize the past and how much you emphasize the future,” said Francis X. Blouin, professor of history and information and chair of the university’s Bicentennial Advisory Committee. 

“Once you establish that balance, how do you celebrate the past and how do you fully understand it?” asked Blouin. 

Enter the Department of History. More than two dozen History faculty, graduate students, and recent PhDs have joined the bicentennial effort.

A group of women from the University of Michigan Class of 1889. (photo: University of Michigan Photographs Vertical File, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

“One question we are asking is how history—the critical explanation of Michigan’s past—can and should inform our vision going forward,” said Martha S. Jones, a presidential bicentennial professor with appointments in History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Law. 

Jones is leading “The Future of the University Community,” a Presidential Bicentennial Colloquium examining the university’s community—what it is and what it should be. Other programming in 2017 includes two additional Presidential Colloquia; three festivals, among them a world’s-fair-style Third Century Expo; two LSA theme semesters; publications; exhibits; and scores of programs from units supported by bicentennial grants. Most will be free and open to the public.

Jones also speaks of reckoning and aspirations. 

“As important to this process is memory, which is not the same as history. Here we are asking what of the university’s past can and should we remember, recall, and memorialize, and how should we do that.”

The university doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its half-million living alumni span the globe. U-M laboratories have fostered public health and technological advances impacting the daily lives of millions.

In turn, external events like World Wars I and II transformed the campus. The Cold War shaped its postwar research agenda, and Michigan’s late-twentieth-century recession forced the university to reconsider its budget.

“Our programming concerns not U-M alone but rather the broad and deep contexts—local, national, and global, within which the university took shape,” said Howard Brick, chair of the LSA Bicentennial Theme Semesters, slated for the winter and fall 2017 terms. 

“The bicentennial theme semesters will invite all members of our community to take a historical perspective on themselves as actors, here and now, who stand between the past and the future of the university,” said Brick, Louis Evans Professor of History and director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies.

The winter 2017 theme semester program is titled “Backstory,” a summing up of the actions and events that set the stage for today. The fall 2017 program, “Storyboards,” presents a way to imagine how the aspirational actions of U-M people today and in the future may play out. 

Both semesters will feature related courses, a series of public programs—ranging from the history of U-M and Native Americans to the turbulent 1960s to the role of the university in the climate’s future—and a two-part exhibit at the Hatcher Library Gallery.

Bicentennial events kick off in January 2017, and the Bicentennial Office is maintaining a master calendar of activities at

“We want more people to know about forgotten moments and aspects of U-M’s history of which we can be proud, and we want more people to understand moments and aspects of U-M’s history that have not so much been forgotten as unseen, obscured, elided, or even repressed,” said Krenz.

“From the point of view of the Bicentennial Committee, the response from the History Department has been fabulous,” added Blouin.