Leadership Q&A: Inclusive History Project

Earl Lewis is the founding director of the University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions and the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of history, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy. He is president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the  American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.

Elizabeth Cole is University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She is a past president and a fellow of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and a consulting editor for American Psychologist. Cole has served as the associate dean for social sciences and the interim dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and is currently the Director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity. 

Lewis and Cole are the co-chairs the University of Michigan Inclusive History Project and answered questions about the comprehensive project.

What is the Inclusive History Project? 

The Inclusive History Project is a multi-year presidential initiative first announced in June 2022. The project aims to deepen our shared understanding of the university’s past by studying and documenting its long history through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Very broadly, the project’s goals are twofold: to produce and share a newly inclusive history of U-M and to reckon with that history and what it demands of us in the present and for the future. 

This year, we’re engaged in a process of planning for the work to come, and leading that work is a Framing & Design Committee composed of faculty, staff, and students from U-M’s three campuses. They are taking stock of where the university is in regards to what is known about its past, thoughtfully considering the work ahead, and making a multi-year plan for accomplishing it. We currently expect to release the plan this summer. 

What led to the establishment of the Inclusive History Project? 

There are a number of threads that were braided together in the launch of this project, and we’ll name a few of them with the caveat that this list is not exhaustive. Many, many people, for example, are interested in the history of this institution, and there are also many people who are interested in expanding what we know of that history to incorporate people, stories, and experiences that are less well-known and often less celebratory, but equally important and equally part of our history. We recognize there are previous and ongoing efforts in classrooms, libraries, museums, and lecture halls across all campuses to study, document, and share some of these histories. Those efforts have been prompted by momentous anniversaries like the university’s Bicentennial, by ongoing concerns about campus climate and the sense of belonging that is felt unevenly across the university, and by the very mission of the university to create and disseminate knowledge. The IHP was born out of that context and signals a deep commitment to this work, and is aligned with other efforts like the DEI 1.0 and 2.0 Strategic Plans that seek to better realize our mission.

In addition, there have been calls at U-M, as at many other institutions, to re-examine what is memorialized on our campuses and what names our buildings bear. For several years, the President’s Advisory Committee on University History has provided guidance on matters relating to the history and traditions of the university, and particularly on reviewing names in and on university buildings. What that review process showed was the need for a comprehensive survey of the university’s history, one that avoids the appearance of a series of one-offs, and that will enable the institution to rationalize and contextualize questions of who and what we honor and remember across our campuses.

Finally, nationally there are scores of institutional history projects that have been undertaken by universities and colleges to both broaden and deepen their understanding of their histories, and it is a movement that we are proud to be joining. While those efforts have largely focused on institutions’ direct and indirect ties to slavery, they provide some very welcome guidance on how to undertake such large-scale projects, and are helping us to consider what kind of project the University of Michigan and its particular history needs.

What are some overarching goals of the Inclusive History Project?

This is an ambitious project. We have immediate goals related to the process of our work–to involve people from across our communities in shaping and contributing to our efforts, to support and amplify the efforts of others in our communities who are already doing this type of work or have ideas for what they would like to do, and to be transparent, collaborative, and welcoming as we move forward.

In the longer term, we have been charged with producing a comprehensive and inclusive history, and that is no small task. In that history we must include the university’s students and staff, faculty and patients, leaders and coaches, alumni and fans, and we must consider race and racism, gender and sexuality, socioeconomic status, religious identification, international status, ability and disability status, and more. That history must take into account local communities in Dearborn, Flint, and Ann Arbor; it must consider the role of the university in Michigan and its national and global reach.

We see the project’s outcomes as only beginning with the production of this new history, though. The project aims to engage the university’s many communities in deep, meaningful reflection on that history and to bring them together to think about its implications for the university’s present and future. Our ultimate vision is a university community that is instructed by a deep understanding of its past and acts on that knowledge to produce change for the future. That change could take a variety of forms–new opportunities to learn about the institution’s inclusive history through courses, campus tours, and exhibits; new art and memorials that bring attention to that history and emphasize how it is truly part of our present; and new policies and procedures that seek to repair past harms. For us, this is the end goal.

What are you looking forward to as the effort continues to expand?

We know that this process over the next several years is going to take honesty, courage, and sustained effort, that some of the stories that will be told and broadcast as part of this project will be difficult in a variety of ways to tell and to hear, and that what is brought forward through this process will often not reflect well on this institution’s past. We think that work is necessary. At the same time, though, there will be other kinds of stories–of joy, success, resistance, and hard-won progress.We are looking forward to joining together as a university community to produce and reflect on the full scope of our shared history and to look forward.

How will the Inclusive History Project positively impact communities on and beyond campus? 

This is a question that is on our minds, and first we need to ask those communities what they want from the project. A large piece of the work we are beginning now and will pursue over the next several years has to do with continuous community engagement and with thoughtfully listening to what our communities say, whether that lies in particular stories about the university’s history they want to share, their thoughts about what the outcomes of the Inclusive History Project should be, or whatever else they want the project to consider. We will make sure to publicize these opportunities widely, and hope to see broad participation.