I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the University of Michigan hospital, along with my mom and brother, as my dad has had surgery. (He’s doing great, btw.) One of the things you do in the hospital is walk around a lot–you need to stay close enough to be of assistance if necessary, but you also need to move your legs.

Michigan’s is an exceptional hospital. As a visitor, I notice that their signage is ample and clear, that employees are quick to ask whether they can help you find anything, and that the architecture is generally bright and welcoming.

university-of-michigan_logojpg2One of the other things I’ve noticed is that the hospital invokes a sense of ritual to remind itself (and its guests) of its aspirations. If you walk along the hallway towards the medical school (which is attached to the hospital), you encounter frame after frame of class pictures for the last 100+ years of med school classes. Fraternities do this too. It communicates to everyone that there’s a long tradition here, and that the school is proud of its graduates.

There are also enormous banners hanging in the main atrium, with photos of patients and doctors behind words from the Michigan fight song: “Hail to the victors valiant, Hail to the conquering heroes, Hail, hail to Michigan, the leaders and best.” As a kid who grew up singing the Victors at football and basketball games, the song has a deep imprint on me, as it does on most people associated with U of M or Ann Arbor. To see the lyrics in print strikes me as a little corny. But when you see a 20-foot picture of a guy with a huge scar on his chest and the words “Hail to the conquering heroes,” it’s very moving.

What the hospital administration has very consciously done here is invoke the practices of ritual. In both cases, the photos serve as a mirror of the aspirations of the hospital community: This is who we are, this is what we’re about. In the case of the banners with the fight song words, they remind all who see them of the larger purpose, the higher vision, of which they are in pursuit. By evoking (literally) the music of the song, they also trigger the deep emotional associations that singing with 100,000 people at a football game brings about, and unify what might otherwise appear to be two disparate parts of the campus (the football team and the hospital; though the two actually share a lot in common–a focus on the body, service to the larger community, and the status of revenue-generators and profit centers).

Northwestern, and many others, could learn from this example.