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Hail to the Victors Valiant

Many consider the University of Michigan as the prototype for the modern research university: Largest graduate school in the world, top ranked in most areas, globally connected and integrated, and the winningest football program in the land. Since innovation happens at the edges of disciplines, it’s no wonder that everything from the polio vaccine to the human genome project were developed on its Brobdingnagian campus in Ann Arbor. Yet, surprisingly, the institution actually functions as hundreds of schools, institutes, centres and all form of sub-unit working together towards the greater good, albeit with very different ideas about what that actually means. We can see the interworking of these parts within the whole of the University by examining their relative function and relationship to each other.
There are constituencies that represent the world at large such as business and government interests; the State of Michigan such as the education of the demos and the transfer or research into the economic base; the Schools within the University itself such as Medicine and Engineering; the Departments within the Schools such as Epidemiology or Computer Science; the Faculty within the Departments each with an areas of expertise; and most importantly, the Students who participate in the system and advance through it as time, opportunity and achievement allow. While these parts all act on their own accord, their actions are greatly influenced by the amount of agency they have acquired or been afforded by the larger and more complex entities.
Ironically, while the largest entity, the University itself, attempts to maintain its equilibrium by aligning its parts via strategy, processes and policies, it grows via the diversity and dissent of its constituents.  The larger the enterprise, the more likely it will appoint incumbent leaders to direct its operation towards the efficient use of its resources – stewardship. This leaves the prospects for radical reconstitution to those nascent powers with limited assets to upset the order of things – innovation. By making provision for both continuity and novelty, the University of Michigan has managed to prosper across centuries. Recognizing and encouraging the implicit tensions of the units within the units, the University of Michigan continues to renew and recreate itself.
Jeff DeGraff
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