On September 5, 2000, the University of Michigan will confer a special honorary degree on Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic. Over the past 40 years, Václav Havel has articulated a new relationship between intellectual creativity and political responsibility that should inspire not only other politicians and intellectuals, but also those institutions charged with linking scholarly accomplishment and the public good. The University of Michigan is a public university, but to what public is it responsible? Certainly the people of Michigan and of the United States are the most obvious public. But when the University of Michigan becomes increasingly a global university in the reach of its scholarly collaboration, in the origins of many of its faculty and students, and in the expertise it organizes, what happens to its public? Put in other terms, what does it mean to be both a global, and public, university? The life and work of Václav Havel provide some guidance.

    Václav Havel is an accomplished author and playwright. The number of his plays, including “The Garden Party” (1963), “The Memorandum” (1965), “The Audience” (1975) and some dozen others, defies simple summary. Attending any one of them, however, elevates our recognition for the power of language and theater, and the consequent significance of dialogue, for addressing the human condition. Havel‘s writings have been an important part of the Michigan scene for over 30 years, most obviously when our colleagues in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures published his works in Cross-Currents, the journal of Central European culture. Although these works might have been read for their critique of life under communist rule, their meaning goes far beyond that.

    When I attended “The Memorandum” several years ago at Ann Arbor‘s Performance Network, I was struck by how well his critique of bureaucracy played locally. His plays invite us to see normal life with a different eye, to recognize its absurdity and the dangers posed by simple resolutions to the problems Havel‘s plots, and our lives, suggest. With that in mind, one could imagine a great Havelian play around the dilemma I pose in the first paragraph. How could a university the size and complexity of Michigan even pretend to address a question of such weight, with the singularity of vision that mission statements typically demand? Might we run the risk of defining a mission around a term, like globalization, that is at risk of cliché? Both “The Memorandum” and “The Garden Party” remind us that clichés can organize life[1]. To avoid that risk of cliché, perhaps we should avoid any statement of institutional priority before globalization. We might place the weight squarely on the shoulders of individuals. Havel‘s own work as a dissident provides clear precedence for that assignment.

    Havel was politically active earlier, but his leadership in the formation of Charter 77 — that citizens‘ initiative whose first act was to document the discrepancy between law and reality in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia — led him to write one of the most important political essays of the 20th century. “The Power of the Powerless” develops a relational theory of power that encourages resistance to authorities with pretensions, and ambitions, of totalitarian rule. It highlights the significance of individual choice, and individual responsibility. To reflect on the deeper questions of human existence and to live in truth is not a game for the ivory tower. For Havel, this was the foundation for freedom. To act as if the rule of law were in effect, even when it is not, was one strategy for cultivating individual responsibility under communist rule and for limiting the power of those who would deny human dignity. Those keywords of today‘s political theory — resistance and civil society — can certainly find powerful inspiration and innovation in that essay. And for those who seek guidance in an oppressive world, Havel‘s writings, and life, provide direction. His years of suffering in prison, most notably those nearly four years between 1979 and 1983, show how difficult it is to realize the individual responsibility about which he wrote. In some ways, however, that individual responsibility is easier to theorize, and to practice, than the larger institutional questions posed by the life and work of a President Havel.

    Václav Havel‘s election as President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989 was the culmination of a year that changed the world. It also changed the way in which Václav Havel would articulate the politics of intellectual responsibility. I have been struck by how leaders of social movements, or of civil society, can develop powerful theories and practices of political responsibility with relatively limited sensibilities of institutional constraints and possibilities. I have also been struck by how the definition of the intellectual, and of the scholar, has often been posed in opposition to power and perhaps even to institutional obligation. That‘s probably as it should be, but it also poses tremendous problems for those who would assume institutional responsibility for organizations guided by the values of intellectuals.

    In that spirit, President Havel has tried to change the meaning of presidential power. In his critical biography, [2] John Keane referred to this effort as a “crowned republic,” drawing on the 18th century political philosophy of Friedrich von Hardenberg (a.k.a. Novalis). In this post-modern version, Havel has used his office to inspire the cultural innovation that moves a citizenry to become the reflective and responsible agents on which freedom and the good society depend. However we name that effort, President Havel‘s presidency has been challenged by enormous problems, not the least of which was the peaceful end to the federation of Czech and Slovak Republics. Rather than sign off on that so-called velvet divorce, President Havel resigned as the federation‘s leader. He was subsequently elected President of the Czech Republic twice, and has overseen the making of one of the most successful democracies and market economies to emerge from over 40 years of rule by one of the region‘s most repressive communist parties. No political leader in these transitioning societies has escaped the contests of democracy unscathed, and President Havel is no exception. He has, however, provided a continuity in leadership like no other political figure from that region, and has given leadership to the world that is genuinely unmatched. And in that global capacity, we can find some of our greatest inspiration.

    In his view of transition, President Havel has argued that one needs to build into the making of markets the fundamentals of that virtuous civil society he admired while in the opposition. Throughout his 1992 “New Year‘s Address to the Nation,” Havel maintained that effective markets rest on the foundation of trust, honesty, humility, reliability and other virtues that can be cultivated only through a strong civil society.[3] While markets are being newly made in post-communist national circumstances, they are also being remade and extended globally. What might approximate civil society, typically understood with national boundaries, in that global economy? Havel‘s own work in Europe provides some of the answer to the question.

    He gained little applause at home when he apologized, on behalf of the citizens of Czechoslovakia, for expelling ethnic Germans in the wake of World War II. That statement, however, marked a different kind of international politics. Its humility and willingness to recognize responsibility in the most difficult of times signaled an approach to international relations that put ethical dilemmas ahead of political calculations at home. He wrote, “Just as our ‘dissidence‘ was anchored in this moral ground, so the spirit of foreign policy should grow and, more important, continue to grow from it.”[4]This orientation toward foreign policy might elevate human rights over national interests. It also might reduce national sovereignty in favor of European integration. But it also creates a new global space. It helps create an international culture that encourages civil society‘s extension beyond national boundaries. Just as an open and vital civil society is essential for making effective markets in post-communist circumstances, its global approximation might be critical for cultivating an ethically desirable globalization.

    President Václav Havel has led us beyond what either the most powerful president, or the most accomplished intellectual, might realize by putting fundamental moral questions of our age on the first page of our global political agenda. Shouldn‘t the protection of human rights override questions of national sovereignty? Doesn‘t our ambition to control the world lead us to overlook those questions that depend on the cultivation of individual responsibility for our spiritual and environmental well being? These are the qualities of an intellectual, and a political leader, with a sense of global responsibility and commitment to the values of civil society and human rights. Extending his lesson to the University is not easy, but it is necessary.

    One of the International Institute‘s guiding principles is its commitment to the creation of scholarship and education that contributes to the public good. The II organizes public programs that highlight international issues and connects local, national and global media with international expertise at the University. In this sense, we uniquely serve the people and the State of Michigan by channeling global currents through Ann Arbor, fueling the creativity and local value of having an international crossroads of scholarship in situ. But a university that addresses a global public does more than serve as a node. With others of similar values, it can establish a current of globalization reflecting the values of intellectual responsibility.

    Of course we already work to achieve this. For example, the Center for Russian and East European Studies is organizing a conference later this fall around the “Silences of Solidarity,” followed by the Annual Copernicus Lecture by Bronisław Geremek. The public value of this sequence extends beyond inviting some of Poland‘s most distinguished political figures and marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity. This conference is designed to clarify issues around national identity, gender, labor and regional inequalities that the practices of the movement‘s formation, or the memories of its making, have difficulty articulating. A distinguished medieval historian, Bronisław Geremek is more widely known as one of the core advisors to Solidarity in 1980–81, Solidarity‘s lead negotiator on political reform at the 1989 Round Table Negotiations and until recently, Poland‘s foreign minister. Given the significance of Solidarity and its former leaders not only for Polish history but also for their contributions to moving the world beyond the Cold War, these events are public interventions of potentially global consequence.

    Next December and January, Ed West, a faculty member in the School of Art and Design, is organizing with the Museum of Art an exhibition of his photographs from South Africa entitled “Casting Shadows.” This exhibit is informed by West‘s own collaborations with South African artists, authors and scholars, some of whom will visit Ann Arbor, including the noted poet and novelist and the country‘s minister of arts and culture, Dr. Mongane Serote, and the world renowned playwright Athol Fugard. Together, these artists are working to imagine new forms of collaboration beyond conventional academic ties, with institutional commitments in support of their intellectual innovation.

    The South Africa Initiative Office (SAIO) was established in 1993 in the Office of the Provost, under the direction of Dr. Charles Moody. That office is now located within the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, but it works to facilitate collaboration with South Africa across the University. Sustained engagements with South Africa can be found in many schools and colleges — including engineering, public health, business and law — as well as in research centers and institutes, such as the Center for Human Growth and Development and the Institute for Social Research. Last spring, Allan Herman, dean of the National School of Public Health, Medical University of Southern Africa, spoke at the invitation of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health. He challenged the international academic community to reframe the AIDS crisis in Africa. It is not just a crisis “over there.” It‘s in the interest of every nation, and of every scholar, to address that epidemic as an immediate threat. Addressing that challenge foursquare is a reflection of the global public responsibility that Havel‘s lesson inspires.

    Universities can realize their mission of global public responsibility by supporting their faculty‘s initiatives in research, teaching and collaboration across the world, encouraging them to direct their work to particular places, and encouraging them to develop new ties. The newest of these efforts, the Scholars at Risk Network, is clearly part of the Havelian tradition. Through collaboration with other universities and the Network‘s home office at the University of Chicago, we work to extend across the world those principles of academic freedom that distinguish our institutions. The Network seeks to raise an understanding of and respect for freedom of expression, opinion and thought; and for higher education, scholarship and the free exchange of ideas. It also takes the extraordinary step of responding to attacks on scholars, including efforts to provide temporary personal and professional sanctuary to scholars threatened gravely by displacement, discrimination, censorship and violence.[5]

    We can extend our responsibility to the public, or publics, across the world by deepening our own capacities in international research and by developing global ties that reflect University values. We might also take that radical step forward and ask not only how we can extend what we are already doing to address a world undergoing globalization. We should also ask what it is that globalization challenges the University to accomplish in extending its values across the world.

    Following President Havel‘s receipt of an honorary degree, Lee Bollinger, president of the University, Jan Švejnar, U-M‘s Everett E. Berg Professor of Business, professor of economics and executive director of the William Davidson Institute, and Glenda Dickerson, professor of theatre and drama and head of the African-American theatre minor in the School of Music, will assemble in a public symposium to respond to President Havel‘s address on “Globalization‘s Intellectual Challenge.” As I write this essay I do not know what directions this discussion will take. I would be delighted if the symposium could help the University shape an international strategy that is inspired by Václav Havel‘s contributions to the politics of intellectual responsibility. We would then know that dialogues over freedom, ethics, and care for the particular places of our being, from Central Europe to southern Africa, would be at the heart of the University‘s mission to address the scholarship and publics of the world.

      1. See pp. 193-95 in "The Politics of Hope" in Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíždala(Paul Wilson, tr.) London: Faber and Faber, 1990. return to text

      2. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (New York: Basic Books, 2000). return to text

      3. Keane, pp. 446-47. return to text

      4. Václav Havel, Summer Meditations (Paul Wilson, tr.) New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 99. return to text

      5. For more information, see http://scholarsatrisk.uchicago.edu. return to text