A constitutional reflection

09-17-2012

America observes Constitution Day today, September 17, commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution by 39 delegates on that day in 1787. Here at Michigan State we also take note of it, together with many other schools, colleges, and universities around the country.

Each year Michigan State’s James Madison College presents a symposium focused on the Constitution, and this year’s event discusses constitutional issues and challenges in the Civil War. Today, as it happens, is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. That battle, the bloodiest day in United States history, gave the Union’s cause credibility enough for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. That move freed the slaves in the rebellious states and broadened the war’s object beyond preserving the Union.

The Civil War put the Constitution to a severe test, but also led to conditions allowing Congress to pass the Morrill “land-grant” Act. That legislation put national resources behind higher education to really deliver on America’s promise of empowerment to all citizens. I was proud to join many of my fellow land-grant university presidents in Washington, D.C., in July to commemorate the Morrill Act’s own sesquicentennial.

Perhaps the highest calling of the land-grant act was to help each state develop citizen-scholars necessary for the leadership and functioning of a real democracy. Even after 225 years, the Constitution remains as subject to discussion and debate as it ever has been. It is something you see played out almost daily on the political and civic stage. Many of those debates, especially those concerning the proper limits of government, are amplified in presidential election years such as this.

It took constitutional amendments just to enfranchise women, minorities, and 18-year-olds with the right to vote, yet even in most presidential elections only a slim majority of registered voters cast their ballots. So it’s no surprise that increasing amounts of money and effort are spent today to influence turnout instead of opinions.

Like so many other things we take for granted, meaningful democracy is ours to lose if we don’t remain engaged. Even the 1913 amendment shifting election of U.S. senators from state legislatures to the voters is being questioned in some political quarters, and Michigan’s own ballot will be peppered with proposed state constitutional amendments that many voters won’t completely understand.

Beyond the obvious place of the Constitution in discussions in college political science, law, and other courses, public universities in particular are bound to pay close attention to current legal interpretations. Freedom of speech, one of the most honored of the Constitution’s guarantees, has its own nuances in an academic environment and you can find our institutional position statement on that First Amendment subject here.

Even the Second Amendment gets a periodic venting when it comes to arguments about universities’ right to regulate firearms on campus – and after tragic instances when visited by violence. Our ordinance for the campus community is outlined here.

I hope you will pause this week to consider the meaning of the Constitution in our daily lives on and off campus, and perhaps join us for the James Madison College Constitution Day Celebration.

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