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Why the University of Michigan is eyeing a bigger slice of Detroit

The college needs the city more than ever.

When we first learned about the University of Michigan’s Detroit Center, not gonna lie, we pictured some impressive, gleaming hall of urban research. In reality, the building on Woodward at Mack is a little more humble and weathered. But the Ann Arbor university may soon be giving its Detroit outpost an upgrade.

NEW DIGS FOR U OF M DEROIT

U of M already occupies half of the stately Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building on Farnsworth Street, across from the Detroit Institute of Arts. It recently purchased the other half for $5.1 million, and is waiting for tenant Wayne State University’s lease to be up next year.

After U of M fully takes over (and likely does some renovations), the space could provide an opportunity for the Ann Arbor institution to redefine its position in Detroit. University President Mark Schlissel suggested to Crain’s Detroit Business that the building could become their “home base” for the city, though its future mission is still unclear.

ASK NOT WHAT YOUR CITY CAN DO FOR YOU

Schlissel, noting that any expansion “depends on how Detroit evolves,” told Crain’s strengthening the school’s Detroit presence could help the university recruit students, researchers and investment.

“We would only do it if it benefited the mission of the university. But part of that mission is to help the economic development of the state that we’re serving,” Schlissel said. “And if we think we can play a positive role for both the university and the city and state’s economy by having a larger footprint in Detroit, it’s something we’d consider really seriously.”

The entire interview with reporter Chad Livengood is necessary reading, but the above sentiment deserves a closer look. The University of Michigan needs Detroit, strategically, in order to appeal to the most talented teachers and students?

ROLE REVERSAL

That’s an incredible reversal from the way Schlissel talked about the university’s benefactor relationship with the city just three years ago, when he talked about student volunteer groups working with residents “trying to lift up their city.”

“We’re serving as a sort of think tank for leadership in Detroit,” he said in a U of M publication. “I want to use Detroit … as a target of the service aspect of what a public university is supposed to be doing for the citizens of the state it serves,” he said.

In many ways, the school has been able to operate in bucolic Ann Arbor while existing wholly separate from Detroit: well endowed, humming along and bestowing its riches on the symbiotic college town. Whether the two cities even count as neighbors in the same region depends on whom you ask. But Detroit’s influence increasingly seems to be stretching westward. When the university leadership starts seeing the institution’s fate as intertwined with Detroit, that feels meaningful.

BEYOND ‘ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT’

So, great — U of M needs Detroit now. But there’s a bone to pick with Schlissel framing their role in the city around economic impact and glossing over the most critical factor for strengthening the city’s long-term vitality: education. It’s a topic, that, um, U of M should know something about. If one of the best public universities is going to try to make a mark on Detroit, why not go big and commit to something transformational for the city’s students? Only 14 percent of adults ages 25 and over in the city have bachelor’s degrees — half the statewide rate — so why not focus recruitment efforts inside city limits, building a talent pipeline, instead of using Detroit’s image to sell out-state applicants on the school?

After all, the city’s public and charter schools sent just over 50 students to the university in 2016. And that’s not just an issue of preparedness for a prestigious university. Five times as many students from the city went to Michigan State University that year.

There’s no question U of M has brought dollars, programming and research into the city — one only wonders how the city’s prospects would have changed if the school never decamped to Ann Arbor (or if another large, wealthy research institution had taken its place). And the administration certainly deserves credit for recent efforts to enroll disadvantaged students. A new program gives low-income admittees free tuition, and a few different internship and college preparedness programs (in architecturehealthcareSTEM) are specifically designed for Detroit’s youth.

But why stop at a few dozen kids per year? By all means, the University of Michigan should expand its footprint in Detroit. But it could try just as hard to expand Detroit’s footprint on its Ann Arbor campus. 

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