Approximately 52 minutes ago at 4pm July 10, 2015, Mary Stewart retired from the University of Michigan after 42 years of service. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year I wrote the following letter to the University on her behalf:
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Lester Spence. I am currently an Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. I entered the University of Michigan as part of the first post-BAM III/UCAR freshman class in the summer of 1987. I matriculated from the University of Michigan in 2001 having received not only my bachelor’s degree (in 1991) but my PhD as well. For almost 15 years I was not only a student on Michigan’s campus, I was deeply involved in the lives of black students. As an undergrad I was on the executive board of my dorm’s minority student association, the Black Greek Association, the Black Student Union, and then one of the founders of the Association of Multicultural Scientists. In honor of the work I performed for the University of Michigan I received the African American Alumni Council’s Ten Under Ten award. Since leaving the University, I’ve received awards for my scholarship (my 2011 book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award), for my teaching (in 2009 I was awarded Johns Hopkins’ Excellence in Teaching Award), and for my work in Baltimore (Urbanite Magazine named me one of their Changemakers in 2012).
I wrote the bio above to provide context for my letter of support for Mary Stewart.
As someone intimately involved in black student social life and in black student political life for almost 15 years, I routinely dealt with administrators and staff persons tasked to work with black students, from high-level administrators to day-to-day staff persons. Although a number of these individuals had and continue to have the best interests of black students at heart, of those individuals still at the University of Michigan there is only one other person I hold in as much esteem as I do Mary Stewart.
When I attended the University of Michigan, black student organizations relied on parties for organizational income. Because the local bar community was closed to black students (we could attend them but were very rarely allowed to host parties in them) and we didn’t have the resources to purchase real estate, we had only a few campus options. We could use the Trotter House, we could use the Michigan Union, or we could use the North Campus Commons. We preferred the Union because it had a big enough capacity and because it was centrally accessible.
Because Mary was in charge of scheduling, she became our point person. However, in the process she became much more than that. She was our historian—she knew our alumni members in many instances better than we did and could put us in touch with them long before Internet usage became common. She was our cheerleader—presenting us with income generating opportunities in the Union when no one else would. She became our counselor—helping us work through issues when we had no one else to turn to.
And when we fought to make the university more representative, she became our advocate.
Being on the other side of the university now as a tenured professor, I have a much keener understanding of the ways the university works, and a much keener understanding of the role non-tenured faculty, administrators, and staff-persons play. And I have even more of an appreciation for Mary, because while Mary was only supposed to do one thing—schedule rooms for students—she ended up providing so much more in time, affection, patience, and love. Further, in her role as an advocate, she possibly put her job in jeopardy because, unlike tenured professors, she serves solely at the behest of her supervisors.
Because I was so deeply involved in the university, I can still come on campus years later, and see people I know.
But because Mary Stewart means so much to me, and so much to Michigan’s community of color, she’s the first person I see when I return. The pictures she has on her wall? Don’t begin to state how important she is to us. Over the last twenty years we are now doctors, lawyers, professors, executives, political operatives, presidents, professional athletes, and more.
And we all owe at least part of our success to Mary Stewart. She is irreplaceable.
In honor of her retirement and her service, a group of Michigan Men put together a scholarship for black students in her name, and created a short video for her (i’m somewhere in the middle). She’s been (deservedly) feted by a range of news outlets in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area. Those pieces come close to doing her justice. But I felt it important to articulate the politics that made her work necessary, and the political choices she made, often in fear of her job. There are others at Michigan like her–Elizabeth James at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies stands out. But she really is irreplaceable.