Celebration for Professor Earl Lewis

January 29, 2024 1:08:11
Kaltura Video

The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts hold a special event in honor of Earl Lewis for receiving the prestigious National Humanities Medal. January, 2024.


0:00:00.5 Celeste Watkins-Hayes: It is wonderful, wonderful to see you all on this excellent occasion. President Ono, provost McCauley, officers of the university, fellow deans and dear friends, good afternoon and welcome to the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. I'm Celeste Watkins-Hayes, and I have the honor of being the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean here at the Ford School, as well as the founding director of the Center for Racial Justice here.

0:00:29.3 CW: I'm delighted to see this community from across the university, from the College of Literature, Sciences and the arts, the RAC and Graduate School, and so many others. We have representatives here from the departments of Afro-American and African Studies and political science and history, as well as our friends at the Center for Social Solutions. We also have folks viewing online. We gather to salute our friend, colleague, and mentor to many Professor Earl Lewis.


0:01:07.5 CW: As we know, he is the first University of Michigan faculty member to receive the National Humanities Medal. In the ceremony at the White House, President Biden said, Earl Lewis Chronicles African American history and explores how diversity strengthens our nation, and it does strengthen our nation. As a university administrator who has shaped some of our preeminent institutions, pushing them to meet the challenges of our times, from water scarcity to the future of work to racial injustice.

0:01:39.9 CW: He makes American universities an even more important source of our national dynamism. Now, to start things off, I'm honored to introduce our President, Santa Ono, the 15th president of the University of Michigan. He joined U of M after serving as the president of the University of British Columbia, prior to which he was the president of the University of Cincinnati.

0:02:05.1 CW: As an experienced visionary researcher, Santa has spent his career at research universities including Emory, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of College, London. Santa is also an accomplished cellist and he holds degrees from the University of Chicago and McGill University. We thank him for his leadership, President Ono.


0:02:28.7 Santa Ono: Thank you. Well, thank you, Dean Watkins-Hayes for that introduction and for your outstanding leadership of the Ford School. It's always wonderful to be here. Had a chance to speak with some of the students here, and they're just thrilled with your leadership and what they're learning here at the school. So thank you. Let's hear it for her.


0:02:54.0 SO: It's really wonderful to be with all of you today to pause, to celebrate someone who means so much to everyone in this room, but to thousands of people around the world. I've seen him at different institutions and I know how much he's admired for his scholarship, but also for his support and mentorship of many, many people. Here at the University of Michigan, Earl Lewis is known by in many different capacities as a professor, as a thesis supervisor, as a mentor, as a friend. As you know, he is a leading social historian, an award-winning author, and he is founder of a very important initiative here at the University of Michigan, the Center for Social Solutions.

0:03:46.6 SO: And, also, as you know, he's co-chairing a very, very important initiative here at the University of Michigan, the Inclusive History Project. And that's involving many many members of our community here, faculty, staff, and students. And it's incredibly important work, really taking an honest look at our history here at University of Michigan as a foundation to a better future and righting some wrongs that have occurred in post-secondary education, but also at our institution, being truthful about our history is the very first step in the path forward. As you know, you just heard from Celeste, he's the very first Wolverine to receive the National Humanities Medal. And as you know, these national medals.


0:04:43.0 SO: These national medals are the highest honors given by the US government. And we've been fortunate to have a National Medal of Science and a National Humanities Medal, and we've also had national Arts medals as well at the University of Michigan.

0:04:58.9 SO: For me, this is especially meaningful moment because of the role Earl you've played in my own life. I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't have developed into a leader were it not for Earl giving me the chance at Emory University. I was a very green administrator when I was at University College London, and Earl took the chance in giving me an opportunity to work with him as his deputy and then senior Vice Provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

0:05:31.7 SO: And every single day I reach back to those experiences and to the lessons I learned from him in what I do as president of the University of Michigan. So I'm very grateful for that opportunity, Earl. And thank you for that and congratulate you on this tremendous honor, to be honored by the United States government. And with that, I understand that we're gonna listen to a wonderful conversation between Dean Watkins-Hayes and Dr. Lewis. Thank you very much. Congratulations again, Earl.


0:06:10.6 CW: Thank you so much, President Ono, for those wonderful remarks. Hello.

0:06:15.3 Earl Lewis: Hi there.

0:06:16.7 CW: So great to be with you and so great to see you. I'm gonna start with the obvious reason why we're all here, but we're gonna unpack all of the other reasons why we're here, all of the different ways that you've had impact. I wonder if you can tell us about the call.

0:06:35.2 EL: So the call. It actually started with an email, before the call, and as some in this room know Ono Monday evening late, it was after 9 o'clock, I get an email from someone connected to the White House asking me if I'd be willing to take a call the next day from the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I said to Susan I hope this is not another assignment. To be honest, there had been a handful of requests for me to take on an assignment or two for President Biden and for a variety of reasons I hadn't been able to do so up until that point. But I said, sure, I will be glad to talk to her. This is the window. And as you know, Celeste knows because we, as fate would have it, Celeste was the next person I saw after that call 'cause we were having lunch that day. And and this is before they told me I wasn't supposed to tell anyone.


0:07:44.8 EL: And so I get a call and I realize instead of an assignment, is an honor. And I was floored and taken aback and every now and then left speechless. And so that was one of those moments.

0:08:00.1 CW: Tell me about the significance of this award. Why do you think it's important at the presidential level to recognize scholars, to recognize people who've contributed to the humanities, people who contributed to the sciences? Why do these awards matter?

0:08:18.1 EL: The award symbolize in many ways that the work you do is not just about yourself. It actually accumulates is important for the overall civic project you can call the United States of America. And when you end up with an award from the President of the United States, it signals to you and to others that what you do behind closed doors or in meetings or elsewhere actually, is important. And this is all the more important for the humanities in a certain way the arts because they have a performing side and a visual side that seem to be more in the present and people get to see it. The humanities, when you're writing and you're telling stories and you're producing a poetry or analytical examinations of text sometimes seem hidden. And you have seen politicians of all ilks, Republicans and Democrats, this is bipartisan, who have questioned the value of humanities in very public ways over the last decade or two.

0:09:19.8 EL: And so to be able to stand up and to be recognized and to be in the company of the people I was in the company of is a way to say that not only did the work that I undertook mattered, but the work of all of us matter. And that's actually important. And as someone who ran the Mellon Foundation for five years, where at one point Mellon was actually giving more money for working in humanities than either NEA or NEH combined. And at one point, it's now, may have been surpassed, but during my presidency, we were doling out about $300 million a year for the humanities and the arts, far more than the national government. So it's important symbolically as well as materially that in some ways we recognize this work.

0:10:10.3 CW: So you and I share a love of stories and particularly origin stories. I wonder if you can take us back to your origins, to Norfolk, Virginia and help us connect that little boy to this individual who receives the National Medal of Humanities.

0:10:31.3 EL: On my block, my brother's here, and so I should my... And Rudy and on our block, and growing up in the segregated south in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no clear path to a national medal. [laughter] And so, and even imagining that you would get invited to the White House was something that was beyond the dream that we could have. And so I look at this, but I'm also reminded of my grandmother. And so this is the origin story. So, in the last couple of years of my grandmother's life, this is the early 1980s, I was doing research in Norfolk on what became my dissertation in my first book. And so I decided who better to interview than my grandmother, who had lived and grown up in the Norfolk area her entire life?

0:11:25.3 EL: And she was in her 80s at that point. And so my grandmother told me something she had never told me before, and it was about her own dreams and about a dream deferred, but a dream never to be denied. So she had, was born turn of the century, in rural Norfolk County, moved into the city of Norfolk and had always wanted to go to college. And in fact, she wanted to go not to college generically, she wanted to go to St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina. She actually had a particular college in mind, the HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina. She saved twice. And each time her father came and asked her to surrender the money to save an older brother from losing his house.

0:12:10.6 EL: And so she would say to me that it was like nothing actually impacted her greater than that than death itself, because she realized what she was forfeiting for family. So, fast forward, this is the 1920s. Fast forward to the 1940s and after World War II my grandparents had three kids. My mom, Virginia, was the oldest of the three. My grandmother had not been able to go to college and had worked as a domestic most of her work and life. My grandfather was a laborer working for the US government at the Naval Air Station painting planes. And so my mother it was decided was gonna go to college at that point to Norfolk State, which was the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College for Negroes, for anyone who knows the Virginia educational landscape, Virginia State was in Petersburg.

0:13:08.6 EL: Norfolk was the upstart. And so my mother started at Norfolk State. My grandmother decided that was not a good thing. So the good God-fearing church going woman that she was she played the numbers. And she hit and she used that to actually send my mom to college. And some ways that's the origin story because my grandmother believing that college was important made sure that all three of her kids went to college. So by the time I came along, and that was the expectation in this working class, black family in Virginia, that education was the ticket and the path.

0:13:57.7 CW: And the ability to make a way outta no way.

0:14:00.5 EL: Exactly. Exactly.

0:14:02.8 CW: So how did you decide that higher education would be the path for you? [laughter] it sounds like your family had a love of education, but was there pressure to do something else?

0:14:18.5 EL: Yeah. I mean, pressure was to get a job.

0:14:20.7 CW: Yeah.

0:14:21.5 EL: And so for those, this is 1970s. And so I graduated from Concordia College in 1978. And Bill Craft, the former president of Concordia is here with us.

0:14:34.9 CW: Oh, wonderful.

0:14:35.8 EL: And that was in Moorhead, Minnesota. And Harold Pope, who was my classmate who lives in Detroit and prominent lawyer, it was a group of black kids all trying to figure out honey, how we ended up in Moorhead, Minnesota.


0:14:50.3 EL: And 50 years later, we are still trying to figure that out. I don't know if Harold may have a better explanation than I do. I decided it was metaphysical, something from a previous life led me there. And I made my way through it all. And so when I finished undergrad, I just decided I was gonna go to graduate school and I applied to the University of Minnesota.

0:15:10.8 EL: It was the only place I applied to go to graduate school in history. And, but I was gonna get a master and make my master's and then make my way back to the East Coast. And when I was there my first year, my good friend Joe Trotter, who is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, he looked at me and he says, "Earl, you're gonna be the next one of us." I said, "The next one of us to do what?" He said, "You're gonna be the next one of us to finish and get your PhD here." Joe saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself at that point in time. And he was prophetic. He was right. Joe, as he would tell the story, Joe finished his PhD at the University of Minnesota in the late '70s and '80s, early, faster than anyone.

0:15:52.4 EL: He did it in five years. And man, these in the years where there was no support. I mean, extraordinary. I did it in six. And so at that point I thought, okay, I think I can figure out this professor thing and maybe actually be good at it. But it was in part because I had mentors. I had mentors who were classmates. I had mentors who were faculty members. Russ Menard, who was my primary advisor, was a colonial historian, an economic colonial historian. And Russ would look at me and he says, "Earl history stops after 1800." And he said, "The rest of this stuff is present tense." And he and [chuckle] I would laugh and I said, "No, Russ, History starts again in the 19th century into the 20th century." But we would laugh about it. But he showed me things about what it meant to be a professor and how and he and John Modell and Clark Chambers and Monson A. Caba and Alan Isaacman and a whole range of others became touchstones for me about the possibility of living life as an academic.

0:17:01.1 CW: So talk to us about how you craft your intellectual trajectory when you think about your articles and books and the ways in which you have really been successful at weaving together history and policy discussions and black studies and all of these different disciplines with this connective tissue around black experiences in black life and the promise of America. Can you talk about, how did that come together? How did that become your part of your life's work?

0:17:38.4 EL: I'm actually trying to write an introductory chapter to a book of essays, my own essays, and that's gonna be published by the University of California Press. And so I've been forced to go back. And my brother's gonna laugh at this. I give credit to the most unlikely person in the world, our geometry teacher in high school Mrs. Overby. This is 1971 in Chesapeake, Virginia. Mrs. Overby was a iconoclastic, I would say that, but she also was one who hued closely to an old vision of the world. So in one day in my geometry class, Mrs. Overby decided to regale us with the stories about the good old days on the plantation.

0:18:32.0 EL: And sit with that for a second. A young black kid, and this is your geometry teacher decided to give you a history lesson. And it took a few minutes. And one of the older, I was a sophomore, one of the older students in the class finally looked at her and said, "Mrs. Overby, can we get back to the lesson plan?" And she snapped and she returned to geometry and vectors and angles and a whole range of other things. But I realized later on that that moment was a story about race and power in American life.

0:19:11.6 CW: Because what do you think she was trying to achieve in that moment?

0:19:16.1 EL: To remind us of power and place. I mean, so there was no ambiguity. I mean, as we said in my, my brother and I laugh about it later because Mrs. Overby, my brother went on to get a graduate, undergrad and graduate degrees in engineering, electrical engineering. But Mrs. Overby was trying to convince him there was only one way to solve a proof. And she insisted that her way was the only way. I mean, so it was not only in her conversation about race that day, it was also her pedagogical approach that there was only one way to do it. And hers was the way. But that day it was something else. It was the case that while the school had desegregated and she was now forced to teach black and white and other students, that was not her preference.

0:20:10.0 EL: That was her job, but it was not her preference. On this day she wanted to actually insert her preference into a conversation that interrupted her job. And that piece about history and power and the ways in which race inserts itself into mundane activities like teaching geometry, sits with me all the time. And it's funny. I asked students from Berkeley, to Michigan, to Emory, to around the country. I go, "So how many of you have ever played the racial guessing game?" And they go, "What's the racial guessing game?" I go, "How many of you have actually walked into a room or walked across the street and you see someone ambiguous and before you know it, you're trying to place them somewhere?" What's that about? For all those people who tell you race doesn't matter, how come you played a racial guessing game? What's the socialization and the process that leaves you to do that even when you know you shouldn't be doing it? And in some ways, that brings me back 'cause it wasn't clear to Mrs. Overby that you didn't have to play the game. The game was there. And we were part of it. And I have sat with that, from that geometry class in 1971, '72 to the day, 50 something years later.

0:21:41.0 CW: And it is something we still, as we all know, grapple with As a country and as a world. And one of the things that we talk about within the Ford School are that policies have genealogies. And that understanding that historical context is so critical for understanding where we are now. So when you look around and see where we are right now at this and present moment, as a historian, what goes through your mind?

0:22:14.7 EL: It's an interesting question. As a historian, my first response is yeah we have seen bits and pieces of this before. And having to understand how and why. And so as Celeste knows, and some of you know, we, the Center for Social Solution in partnership with WQED just released a documentary on PBS nationwide called the Cost of Inheritance. And it's an examination of history, race, and reparations in the United States. And so there, there's an example in there of John Boyd, who's an African American farmer in Mecklenburg County in Virginia. And John tells a story in this documentary about not 1953 or 1963 or 1973, but 1983 trying to get a loan from a local federal representative for the farm administration. And he said, in, its late as 1983, this agent would only see black farmers two days a week for a limited set of hours.

0:23:30.7 EL: And he tells this story in the film where he was sitting there, he says one day where he had his time and the agent allowed a white farmer, who was named Earl, to come into the room during his time and handed the white farmer a check for $173,000. He had been fighting for several years to get a check for $5000. That disparity between his right as a farmer and his desires as a farmer has a whole lot of antecedents in 1983, 1993, 2003 is the Obama administration before actually the government begins to right the wrong of years of Benign Black Farmers, the same access to capital as they awarded white farmers. And that story is there in the history. I mean, for those who decry the claim that 40 acres and a mule makes no sense. As some members of Congress have said recently, all the people responsible for that are dead. And I said, that's absolutely right. They are dead. But we are the descendants of those who actually made those laws and policies, 40 acres and a mule were impossible, but yet we still provide 160 acres at a time under the Homestead Act, which was the latest, the greatest wealth transfer in American history.

0:25:07.6 CW: Do you think that if people had a deeper understanding of history, they would think about policies and policy prescriptions differently? Do you think that's part of the reason there's a concerted effort to not teach history and to not engage these issues of...

0:25:23.9 EL: I wish it was as straightforward as if people knew history, they would be better.

0:25:28.6 CW: Yeah.

0:25:31.2 EL: I think part of the challenges is that we are dealing with power in so many different ways and who gets to claim it, who gets to hold on to it? Who gets to assert it? And so history can be used and misused as we've seen. And demagogues oftentimes actually know just enough history to get people to follow them. And it's not that they're ignorant of history, it's how they use and misuse and abuse history for their own whims. And we look, I sit here, we can watch an event on national television on January the 6th, and then people will tell you later it didn't happen or it didn't happen the way that you saw it with your own eyes. And you're encouraged to believe in some ways that counter narrative is indeed the correct narrative and it raises profoundly important questions about Ford school and others where it's not history, it's a certain kind of literacy that we need to make sure that we're about, how do we make legible the past? How do we make sure that people are literate enough to understand and question what they see and go and look and try to understand what are indeed the original sources. So I'm less saying when that history write history is this saving the vice more so that a certain kind of literacy is critical at this moment when so much is coming at us in so many different forms that you can't tell fake from deep fake.

0:27:15.4 CW: How do we think about that as educators? It's something that at the university I know we're very concerned about, colleagues across the country are concerned about it as well. How do we translate that? How do we reshape our curriculum? How do we reshape how we're instructing students to have that deeper level of legibility and understanding and literacy?

0:27:39.0 EL: Yeah. I think there are three ways that I would say that we can address it. One is to actually be quite upfront about our own limitations. There are certain things we can know and certain things that we may not know. And so that piece I think is critical. I mean, you stand in front of a classroom, you oftentimes wanna be the authority you're taught, and you've been taught to be the authority, but how do you surrender that a authority as an instructor and deal with the vulnerability of not always having all of the answers or the most complete set of answers. So that's one piece. There's a pedagogical part to it. The second part, I think, has to do then with how we actually accumulate the sources that we are going to use to explain whatever it is about the past or the present that we're trying to connect and how do we really pull those sources.

0:28:39.0 EL: And then the third part is actually how we invite our students to be the active learners. Because what I've learned over almost 40 years is that if I'm standing in front of a classroom lecturing, my students get so much. If they have to actually turn and be the instructors and actually go and understand how that material was made, what the argument is, what the sources are, etcetera, and then teach it to the others in their class, then they actually learn more. And I've been able to test this over years, and I realized that redesign of the classroom where the students are not the passive recipients, but the active creators of the knowledge that's being produced in the classroom also means that it usually sticks with them longer than if they're on the other side of the table just receiving.

0:29:28.8 CW: Do you think higher ed is struggling from a PR problem where we're not good at telling our own story in terms of what we do? Or do you think we're in the midst of a power struggle?

0:29:40.9 EL: A little bit of both. I was laughing with someone last week. I go, you know, if higher Ed was like as good at corrupting young minds as being alleged by some, maybe we'd be that good. There'd be no news story. I mean, 'cause we were succeeded and all and they go... And so I laugh at a certain level in the perfect way, the innocence of the claim. And that somehow that there are these unformed individuals who walk into a classroom and we sort of mold them into these little proselytize who go and go out and proselytize in a certain kind of way. I'm like, yeah, it doesn't happen. At least it's not been my experience at the very least and so that's one part. The second part of it is we do have a PR problem because as some of us who know, you can't get all the big 10 schools to agree on the same thing.

0:30:51.6 EL: And you certainly can't get all the AAU schools which are the major research universities to agree on the same thing. And then you multiply that to the 4,000 colleges and post-secondary institutions in the United States. And imagine that we speak with one voice and we don't. We've never spoken with one voice. I don't know that we should. Some part of the heterogeneity of the institution of higher education in the United States is its power and perhaps its weakness that we aren't all the same thing. We never have been. Never will be. But that means then for those who want to pick out a story and pick out a theme we are easy prey because we all aren't the same and we don't speak with the same and we don't have the same intentions but.

0:31:40.9 CW: So how do we navigate that? How do we respond to it? How do we think about an effective voice, set of voices, as opposed to one voice as it relates to the importance of higher education?

0:31:54.6 EL: I mean, I think part of it is you try to figure out who's in your neighborhood, right? I mean, so as a higher ed institution, when I was chairperson of the Concordia board, I would say to Bill oftentimes, what neighborhood do you want to be in? And who's in your neighborhood? And how do you influence the folks in your neighborhood? And how do you engage in conversations with folks in your neighborhood? We all live in communities and trying to get people to understand something about their community. My good friend George Sanchez told a story that I often repeat all the time in many different settings. And George, if I get it wrong, you can correct me later. But George was telling us.

0:32:40.7 EL: We were in a meeting and George was offering an example in Southern California. And I think if I remember correctly, there was a vote coming up in this community about paying more taxes in all four public schools. And one person stood up saying, "This really isn't about me. My kids have all grown up and why should I pay more for somebody else's kids?" And as I remember the story, another person stood up and says to that person talking, "May I ask you three questions?" And the person said, "Sure." "When you're done, do you plan on retiring?" And the person said, "Yeah."

0:33:21.2 EL: Says, "Well, when you retire, do you plan to sell your home?" And he says, "Yeah." "Well, when you sell your home, who do you think is going to buy other than those other people's children?" So an investment in those other people's children is an investment in your retirement plan.

0:33:43.8 CW: And for some people, that's the motivator.

0:33:45.8 EL: Yeah. And all of a sudden for that person, as I understand it, a little light bulb went off in his head that he was no longer disconnected. That he was actually part of a community. He was in a neighborhood and a place in that neighborhood mattered. That's the same thing for Harriet.

0:34:01.8 CW: And part of it is talking about our connection to so many different people, so many different stakeholders, so many different constituencies beyond just the students in our classroom and all of the impact we have.

0:34:14.6 EL: We live in a big wide world. I was had the great fortune of being invited to give the 75th Distinguished Lecture for the Fulbright Program, or something like that. I forget which number it was. It was 75th. Look, I distinguished for the Fulbright Program between the UK and the US. And so I was in Edinburgh right after Thanksgiving. And I realized that a conversation there, I'm just giving a talk entitled The Grace of Reparations, and arguing that if we look across the world, the whole question of race and reparations is not an American story alone.

0:34:56.6 EL: The UK and Europe and the rest of the world has its own versions of that story. And how do we pursue a graceful way of beginning to think through what are our obligations to one another? And I think part of the challenge and the opportunity for us as we sort of ponder the question, Celeste, is to think, okay, this world is more connected now than it ever has been. I can send a message in 15 seconds to someplace sitting in a phone someplace in the rest of the world. And you sort of realize what that means. I mean, there are moments when I yearn for the analog day, when I would get a letter, and I would sit and let it sit there for a few days, and then I would respond, and then a week or so later it would get to where it was going to be, and communication was slow and easier.

0:35:54.8 EL: Not easy, but easier. And now you realize that almost everyone in this room, if you get a text or an email, is expected to answer within 35 seconds to 45 seconds. And you think of what that does to the brain loop. If you're always on and you're always thinking about how you're gonna answer and how quickly you need to answer, well, you don't get a chance to pause and think. When I was provost at Emory, and Santa made me remember this, we as provost and president and I and the rest of the cabinet, we had a rule. On big, complicated issues, we were going to suspend time. We were gonna say that we weren't going to answer in the next 24 or 48 hours. We would tell people we would get them an answer within 48 hours, but we wouldn't rush to try to get an answer in that first 24 to 48 hours, because in some ways we had to figure out how to slow time.

0:36:53.9 EL: And in this connected world, as we think through these problems, how do we begin to address problems that are more than one or two or three millennia old? I've been given this commencement address, and poor Susan has heard it more than once, my wife, where I remind people that geneticists have now confirmed what we long knew, that all humans share 99.9% of the same DNA, which in effect means that all of human history has been written about one-tenth of 1% of difference. And you think of the fact that over the course of millennia, we've forgotten our shared origin story, going back to your first question. We had a shared origin story. We have moved away from that shared origin story, event by event, decade by decade, century by century, war by war, millennia by millennia. What does it mean to sit on that notion that we all share the same 99.9% of the same DNA? That in effect, all of human history is about that one tenth of 1% of difference? Is that part that actually forces us to reconnect with one another, but also to ask different questions about how we tell that shared origin story?

0:38:24.0 CW: So much of the Center for Social Solutions really brings that concept to life of the commonality that we share. And it's so interesting to me how you selected these four key areas of focus. And you're doing this at a point in your career where you've looked at and thought about so many different topics, so many different ideas. You've had an administrative career where that's taken you from U of M to Emory work at the Mellon Foundation, seeing hundreds of proposals for ideas. How did you settle on the four driving ideas for The Center for Social Solutions?

0:39:10.9 EL: And you're right. They were my ideas. I always tell everyone else, no one else should be held responsible for the four ideas that I came up with. So the first one I'd already started. And so before I joined the Mellon Foundation I organized a convening at the Mellon Foundation. So I was the president designate. And we brought in a group of people. Nancy Cantor was in the room. And we brought in university presidents, general counsels, etcetera, etcetera. And we were trying to think through post Grunder and Grotz after Hopwood and others began to think through what the terrain and landscape looked like and what people knew.

0:39:52.4 EL: And so out of that came OCI, the Our Compelling Interests series. Because we realized after that convening of 25, 30 very smart and able and well-situated people that they knew less about the law, let alone the science and the scholarship behind the Grunder and Grotz cases than we had hoped. And so we thought we needed to come up with a new effort. So we ended up calling an Our Compelling Interests the value of diversity for a prosperous democracy. So that was already there. And I had already started it before I decided to leave Mellon.

0:40:28.6 CW: So thrust one was diversity and democracy.

0:40:32.1 EL: And democracy. But then I'm a historian and an American social historian. It was circa 2016 or so. And I'm sitting there going, 2019 is right around the corner. And I'm a native Virginian. And so we're approaching the 400th anniversary of the importation of the first African peoples into colonial Jamestown and Virginia. Slavery is almost like that specter. It's always offstage but never completely gone in American life. And in my view, we had not fully addressed or dealt with it. And so I could see that we were getting close to 2019, and we were going to need to do something about it.

0:41:16.2 EL: And I remember when I raised this issue and this prospect with some folks at the foundation, including my board chair and others, they were a little leery of taking on this topic. And their body language encouraged me all the more. And that I had found the right topic and then title because I deeply believe that the story of slavery is not an old story. It's an ever-present story. And according to more recent data, there are more people in some form of unbounded labor in the world today than at the end of the 19th century of forced labor.

0:42:04.7 EL: And so when you begin to look at more recent and contemporary statistics, you realize that the story of human trafficking is just one example of the continuation of the story. So for us, then, slavery and its aftermath became the theme because I wanted to center it in certainly what we think of as the second slavery, that period of the transatlantic slave route. But that transatlantic slave route had a sub-Saharan slave route, an Indian route as well, and so most Americans, we talk about one and not the other, and those two together talk about much of the world, and so we went there.

0:42:48.2 EL: But then I was struck. When I was at Emory, we were in a meeting at the Carter Center. Well, actually, we were at Georgia Tech with representatives from the Carter Center from Georgia Tech and Emory. And there was at Georgia Tech, I believe it was, a colleague was telling a story, and then Jeff Copeland, who had been at one point in this life the director of the CDC, would tell another story, but the story went something like this, where there was a West African village and without drinkable water close by, and the women would have the ferry water from a somewhat contaminated river stream into the central village.

0:43:37.4 EL: And so the World Bank, I think it was the World Bank and not the International Monetary Fund, but one of them funded a project, and they brought in the engineers, and the engineers did what engineers do. They examined the problem, and they came up with a solution. They'd built a well right in the center of the village. All done, or at least they thought. And then to their surprise, the women kept walking to the river to get the water, and they couldn't figure out why the women were still walking to the river. And so eventually they brought in an anthropologist and a gender expert to talk to the women.

0:44:22.8 EL: And the women said, "Yeah. Like we liked the clean water, but that wasn't the only reason that we actually went to the river. There were other social ways where we actually got away from the children and the men and the household duties and the community by going to the river. Putting the well right there, solve one problem and created another one."

0:44:44.6 CW: 'Cause then you're right there.

0:44:46.1 EL: They're right there. Exactly. And then that for me became a metaphor in a lot of ways that we oftentimes try to diagnose a problem believing that we have actually spoken to all the right people without speaking to the actually most the Central folks in the overall narrative. And so, as we are thinking about this, so I asked question, I go. So what does it mean then if to be able to move water? What would it mean to be able to move water from flood prone areas to drought stricken areas? And in between Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota and the Red River Valley used to flow north and flood every year.

0:45:29.5 CW: So from slavery in its aftermath theme to water and security.

0:45:37.1 EL: Yeah. Water and security becomes a way, because all of a sudden engineers will say the same thing. It's not an engineering problem to move water from one place to another. It's every other kind of problem. We have pipes that and hoses that can move vast amounts of water from one place to another and the question becomes then what is it? What does it mean to be every other kind of problem? And in a world right now where climate is "an existential threat". I think it's a threat. I don't think you have to even modify it. [chuckle] you reference, I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk has been sinking since I've been born and continues to be under water. And that's a problem 'cause that's where the East Coast naval fleet is housed. And so, there's trying to figure it out, but what does it mean then as we think about water? And so, I thought, this is the wild card question for me as a social historian.

0:46:41.3 EL: But I have wonderful colleagues in the Center for Social Solutions for whom the study of water and then colleagues in engineering and others, but we are learning along the way as we try to move this along. And then fourth, real quickly is the dignity of labor in an automated world. And this stems in part. I started as a labor historian among other things. And so, I've always been interested in workers and the dignity of labor. And it's alleged in that between robotics and AI and all what it means to labor is going to change and is changing. So how will we ascribe dignity to work? And I think of this in a western context, but I think in a modern context. Almost any place you go in the world, at least in a western setting, within five minutes of encountering someone the conversation, you use the terms to, so what do you do? What do you do? And imagine a world in which is impossible to answer. What do you do? And so, we started with that question of trying to sort of situate thinking about what do you do? And hence the dignity of labor in an automated world.

0:48:04.4 CW: I wanna ask you about the Inclusive Histories Project, because that too is a place of exploring our common humanity, dealing with some difficult truths, encouraging us to think deeper. And I wonder if you can, first of all, for people who aren't familiar with it, talk about the Inclusive Histories Project and then talk about the significance of what it's meant to be involved in this project here at the University of Michigan.

0:48:38.2 EL: So the Inclusive History Project has three starts, in a way I tell the story. Others here may tell the story differently. And so, it started in part over Fielding Yost and Pakawa and the President's Advisor Committee on university history recommending that Yost name come off the ice Arena. And there's a reason behind that now and I was on that committee, so I'd say this is someone who was on that committee because of Yost involvement in the incident that led to the bench of Willis Ward in the 1930s when he and Jerry Ford were on the football team, etcetera. That decision, our recommendation was heard. And the question was, is that enough? And should we not, and in fact, do more and do a broader and deeper examination of the university and its history. And so that went from Mark to Mary Sue to Santa.

0:49:41.4 EL: And that sort of order and that cadence. And so, we spent the first year in what I refer to as Year zero, which upsets some of my colleagues. And they... [laughter] and I'll take the blame 'cause I was the one who wanted to call it Year Zero, because I didn't want to give anyone the impression that we were doing anything more than framing and designing how we should go about studying the institution's history. And that's not to say that people weren't already doing work. We've said it multiple times, and I'll say it again. We knew that people were already doing work and we were building on that work, but we didn't wanna imply that we were starting to do work until we actually understood what we were trying to achieve. And so, we spent a year designing and framing. And now this year, we actually have begun the work of trying to understand the university's own history.

0:50:35.7 EL: Two centuries worth of history there. But doing it a little differently than most others. And so many other colleges and universities started with a story about slavery. And slavery was a defining moment in their creation. The University of Michigan doesn't have the slavery narrative as a defining moment. And so we're going back to 1817 and the land grant with Native peoples in the state of Michigan, what became the state of Michigan, and what that responsibility is, and has been. But we're also trying to do something else, which I think is actually key. We framed this as a project that's also to be reparative in nature. It's not just about telling the story about our past, but it's to actually tell the story about what needs to be repaired in the present.

0:51:30.4 EL: And that is hard work as we make our way through, and I've said to Santa on more than one occasion, this is at a minimum a five-year project. It could very well be a decades-long project. And I will, if it's on the other end of a decade, I will watch. I will have gone off payroll by that time. As I remind people all the time, I was on a ten-year lease, I'm now on a five-year lease. And the clock is ticking down in that direction. And so that means then we're trying to get a certain number of things done in the next period. And so we have several major efforts underway. Our website will be released in the next couple of weeks. And so that will be the first public attempt to really share with the broader community what we're doing. And, but we will have reports. And for those who are interested, you can actually read the framing and design committee report from last year. But our hope is to do three things at a broad level. One is to be repaired. And so we'll be able to see that. And so that means that if we are telling the same stories about the university in 2030 or 2035 that we told in 2020, we will have failed.

0:52:54.7 EL: We really fundamentally believe that. It should have forced us to take a harder look. And so if the young people who are given the college tours give the same college tours in five or ten years from now, we deem that a failure. And we've said that as an example. But we also believe that this should be where people get to take it and do their own kinds of projects. And so we're trying to support faculty, staff, and students who want to initiate projects as well as there, and sort of guide big projects that the institution itself will be about. And then the last thing I would say at a sort of high level is that we also expect that in the end the iconography of the campus will change in some formal sense. And the markers, the signage, all of that should have changed a little bit. Whose pictures are on the wall? Which pictures are on the wall? How long they stay on the wall? Perhaps even what names are on the wall will change as well. And those are our expectations. It's nice to be on the front end of all of this rather than the back end because you can still remain quite hopeful.

0:54:17.4 CW: I want to finish where we started, which is when you talked about the medal and receiving the National Humanities Medal...

0:54:27.1 EL: And for those who...

0:54:28.6 CW: Which is beautifully displayed here, you talked about its significance in terms of people. And it's so interesting to me, all of the different institutions that you've been a part of, and you've named and referenced many of them here, you come back to the University of Michigan. And I remember when I was thinking about moving, and I had lunch with you and Al Young, and I said, "Tell me about the University of Michigan." So I'm going to close by asking you, what is this place called the University of Michigan, and what has it meant to you and your career?

0:55:12.8 EL: So the University of Michigan is both a physical location and an imaginary location at some level. When I was away, for those who don't know, I was here for 15 years the first time, '89 to 2004. And then I went away for 14 years, 2004 to 2018. And then I came back in 2018. And so it's an imaginary place. Imagine yourself walking along somewhere on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and you have on a Michigan cap. Exactly. And go blue. And you don't even need to know the person. You just walk by, and the only exchange is go blue, and you keep walking. And it's that part of an imaginary community that you're a part of. Now, half the people I'm not even sure were Michigan alums, but they had the cap, and they were still part of this imaginary community.

0:56:15.0 EL: And it's that piece that, even when I was away, I could still sort of touch that imaginary community. But it was also a place where, I dare say, I and my colleagues and the graduate students and others that we work with changed our respective fields for a generation. And so, I mean, I'm looking at George, and George will remember this. And we walked George Sanchez, who's now at USC, but George and I were walking across campus one day. I said, "George, I got a crazy idea." And he says, "What is it?" I said, "We should start a new book series." And he says, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, let's do it, and we'll pull in some others." Well, that crazy idea became the American Crossroads book series. And 50 books or something, close, 70 books now published. At least half of them are award-winning books, and at least two of the authors have gone on to win MacArthur's.

0:57:26.0 EL: One of whom was Talia Miles, who was our colleague here, but she published her first book in our series. And the other one was Natalia Molina, who's at USC now, but who's a graduate student in the history department here. And so we created in this space opportunities for a new generation. And that for me is actually the greatest part. When I came here I was a whole lot younger. And I remember sitting at lunch and my first being recruited. And all of my colleagues treating me to lunch that day were telling stories about service in World War II.

0:58:08.5 EL: Yeah. And Eddie will know who some of them were. And I'm sitting there going, okay I think I have figured out a way to be part of this department. I certainly was not around in World War II, let alone fighting in World War II and all. But it was that space where we came in and we... I was given the license to recruit with others Robin Kelly and Elsa Barkley Brown. And we built the strongest program in African-American history in the country at that period in time. George came and we built it out even more. And there was a group of us who were here who were determined that we were going to actually shape and reshape aspects of American history. That part I actually think about. And then, of course, what I didn't know and when I first moved here in '89 from Berkeley, that I would become an administrator. I mean, in fact, I, the joke is, and Jim Grossman will know this, I left Berkeley because they, in part, they wanted to make me an administrator. I mean, When I got an offer from Michigan, Berkeley's response is that, "We can make you an, we'll give you tenure. We can make you an assistant dean and give you more money." And I go, "Oh, no, I'm done." And then within a year of arriving here, I was the interim director of the Center for Afro-American African Studies.

0:59:45.5 CW: They do that here.

0:59:46.5 EL: Yeah, exactly.

0:59:46.7 CW: Oh, my gosh. You come in with a plan and they do that.

0:59:54.9 EL: They do it. But I discovered something along the way. I discovered something about administrative life that I didn't know when I was leaving Berkeley. And you probably have discovered this as well. I discovered that, one, I was actually good at it, more so than I even dare admit to myself in the first couple of years. But two, it was, for me, psychologically. It was the right blend. Because as an administrator, I can make a decision in the morning that had consequences by the evening. So much of academic life was about deferred gratification. But at least in history, I write an article, it go through the review process, etcetera, etcetera and by the time it came out, 12 to 18 months later, I go, I don't even remember this. Let alone, I've been reading it sometimes.

1:00:54.0 EL: I go, Are those my pros? I mean, I don't even remember. And it was this part where something about being able to say, and this was what Michigan also meant. It took a chance on a young person to lead. And then, eventually, when I became Dean of Rackham and all, it gave me more than one opportunity to lead. And that is something that I did value, do value, and will value forever.

1:01:19.8 CW: Earl Lewis, we celebrate you. We appreciate you. We love you. We can't wait to see what's next. Because we know that there is much more work ahead of you. We're so excited. Thank you so much for this conversation.

1:01:47.6 EL: Thank you.


1:01:52.1 CW: And now it is my very distinct honor to introduce my friend and colleague, Dean Anne Curzan.


1:02:07.2 Anne Curzan: What a remarkable conversation. And it, what a difficult position to be in to follow that conversation. But we're thrilled to celebrate you and this medal. I was, I'm Anne Curzan. I'm the Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. And I was in the Dean's office when we got word that Earl Lewis might be interested in returning to the University of Michigan. And institutions are not known for moving quickly or for consensus. And I have never seen so much consensus or speed in the LSA Dean's office that I saw at that moment. And we're thrilled to get to co-host this celebration of you with Celeste and with Ford, because as you all know, Earl is jointly appointed between our two schools. And this conversation, I mean, what a remarkable scholar you are, who both shows the power of the humanities in your own work and have been doing that for decades.

1:03:06.3 AC: But we also see you harnessing the power of the humanities, and it's what you're doing at the Center for Social Solutions and was doing, you were doing at Mellon, and of the social sciences, by bringing colleagues together to address the most pressing problems. You are also, as we've seen today, a brilliant advocate for the humanities. You are also one of the most generous university citizens I have ever met. As you're getting a sense of, I mean, Earl is running the Center for Social Solutions. He is also teaching, so he is here today. His students are watching or are here because he should be teaching class right now, but we are very glad that he is here. And also, every time I turn around and there's an important committee, who is on it? Earl Lewis is on it, because you say yes, and it's such a gift to all of us. And as I was sitting here, and you were talking about this medal and why it matters in terms of...

1:04:00.3 AC: The importance of the humanities for this civic project that we are in. And of course in LSA we house a lot of the humanities units. And I was thinking about all the ways in which we try to talk about the power of the humanities. And I've learned so much from you about how to talk about it in terms of, first of all, it's a place where we go to find meaning as well as solace. And I thought about that a lot during the pandemic when here we were alone often, and we turned to art and music and history and literature and philosophy. I remember meeting someone who said, "I started reading the stoics again [chuckle], during the pandemic, and history and plays and film as a way to make meaning and find meaning," as you were just talking about the humanities tells history and retells history so that we, in that retelling can try to confront our own biases and confront what it means, these misconceptions and consider what we learn as we go forward from that.

1:05:08.9 AC: It imagines alternate worlds. And I love what you said there in terms of what does it mean to move water, right? Not what engineering is involved, but what does it mean to move water? The humanities interrogate how humans respond to each other, how our communities, and as you were talking about these complex connections and how we respond to change. So that we can be prepared and be persuasive. And I was thinking about your remarkable rhetorical toolbox, and that one of the things we're also trying to do is expand people's rhetorical toolboxes, and make them as you were talking about more discerning listeners and readers because of course, history can also be used to manipulate. If the humanities ask us to consider key ethical questions. We push on notions of truth and fact as we strive to pursue both. And then one of the ways that I have come to talk about this, and I was thinking about as we were sitting here, is that we, and it goes, it's a quote from a fellow dean of mine actually in the Big 10 who said, "Empathy is not just a value, it's a skill," and it's a skill that we have to hone.

1:06:28.3 AC: And it's why we study history and read literature and study art and languages, is that we are honing empathy. And this is a world that needs more empathy, and you are someone who brings such deep empathy to the work that you do. So I have said to you before, and I wanna say it here, it is one of the privileges of my career to get to work alongside you here at the University of Michigan, as we've seen today you are forever pushing us to embrace new perspectives in our work, you bring those perspectives into dialogue and to be unafraid of true structural change, because true structural change is really scary.

1:07:10.2 CW: Yeah.

1:07:11.0 AC: And you showed us here as you were telling these wonderful stories that you demonstrated again and again, what it means to be unafraid, what it means to be unafraid to take on the hard questions, to be unafraid of change, both in research and in administration. And you've shown us both. So I know personally that you are wise in your council and you are generous with your time and energies. You are optimistic and pragmatic, and that is an amazing combination. So, thank you for all that you do. We are thrilled that you were honored with this medal. You are both an inspiration and a model for so many of us. So, if you can all join me once again in celebrating Earl with a round of applause.