From Ali to Attenborough and Maya Lin to Mrs. Roosevelt, the University of Michigan is a nexus for great minds. The University has a history of attracting—and welcoming—the kinds of people who want to share big ideas.
Take poet Joseph Brodsky (Sc.D. Hon. ’88) as just one example. Dismayed to receive notice from the Soviet government that he'd be kicked out of his native country, Brodsky discussed his dilemma with a Slavic scholar who happened to be visiting at the time, LSA professor Carl Proffer (A.B. ’60, A.M. ’61, Ph.D. ’63). Appalled by the situation, Proffer secured a teaching position at U-M for Brodsky, who arrived in Ann Arbor a few months later. Proffer and his wife published Brodsky's poetry through the press they co-founded, Ardis Publishing, and the intellectual partnership grew well beyond the campus—Brodsky eventually won a Nobel Prize and became poet laureate of the United States.
Learn more in our gallery below.
1968—Three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali spoke at a commentary series organized by U-M’s Interfraternity Council. A member of the Nation of Islam at the time, Ali shared his strong stance on racial tension with the students who came to hear him speak. The series also hosted Timothy Leary, who debated about taking drugs and social responsibility.
1971—John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Crisler Arena, where Lennon performed for the first time in the United States after the breakup of the Beatles. The rally drew Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, and others to the stage, attracting an audience of about 15,000 people. Three days later, Sinclair (A.B. ’64 Flint), an activist serving a 10-year sentence for marijuana possession, walked from prison a free man.
1921—Robert Frost spent two years as U-M’s first poet-in-residence. Students loved him (Frost submitted a poem to the student literary magazine, Whimsies), and townies admired him (a local drug store created a chocolate-covered ice cream treat in Frost’s honor, named the “Frost-Bite”). Frost’s old Ann Arbor house now stands in the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
1993—Sir David Attenborough, a veteran documentarian of plant and animal life, visited LSA’s Biological Station with a film crew from the BBC. For the documentary series The Private Life of Plants, they filmed right next to the newly constructed Biotron, an underground laboratory designed to provide researchers with intimate access to plant roots, plant-fungi relationships, and soil insects.
1969—Before winning her Emmy as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, native Detroiter Gilda Radner (LSA ’69) honed her talents at and around U-M—in plays at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (above) and as the “weather girl” on WCBN-FM, the campus radio station.
1966—Andy Warhol (bottom right, far right), members of the Velvet Underground, and others in the atrium of Lorch Hall, perusing the Michigan Daily. The artists were on campus to perform as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the fourth annual Ann Arbor Film Festival. Other stars who have screened at the film festival include George Lucas, Gus Van Sant, and Devo.
1972—Considered a “social parasite” in the U.S.S.R. and sentenced to hard labor for devoting his life to poetry, Joseph Brodsky got tenure at U-M without the formality of a review and taught in LSA’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. After leaving U-M (“the best school in the nation,” he said), Brodsky earned the Nobel Prize and became U.S. poet laureate.
1995—Architect and artist Maya Lin unveiled “The Wave Field” on U-M’s North Campus, the first of three wave field installations around the country. Best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that she designed at age 21, Lin got her inspiration for “The Wave Field” from fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and turbulence—the Stokes wave in particular—all of which reflect ongoing research in the JBX building nearby.
1964—Recently inaugurated president Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered his “Great Society” speech at U-M’s spring commencement because John F. Kennedy no longer was available—the graduating class had invited JFK just one month before he was assassinated. LBJ spoke to an estimated 70﹘90,000 people with optimistic conviction about opening all opportunities to everyone, regardless of their race, faith, or wealth.
1958—United Nations delegate Eleanor Roosevelt hobnobbed with the president of U-M’s Student Government (shown), along with foreign and honors students during International Week. She noted in her journal, “I just sat and answered questions, which I always find interesting because they give me much information as to what our young people are thinking about.”
Ali photo courtesy of Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan. Lennon and Ono photo courtesy of Michiganensian. Frost photo courtesy of Michiganensian. Attenborough photo by Sandy Beadle (’85). Radner photo by Cecil Lockard, The Ann Arbor News; courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library, oldnews.aadl.org. Warhol photo © The Estate of Nat Finkelstein. Brodsky photo courtesy of Michiganensian. Lin photo by Bob Kalmbach, courtesy of Bentley Historical Library. Johnson photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library. Roosevelt photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.