When we first learned about the University of Michiganâ€™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. ItÂ recently purchased the other half for $5.1 million, and is waiting for tenant Wayne State Universityâ€™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 PresidentÂ Mark SchlisselÂ suggested to Crainâ€™s Detroit Business thatÂ 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 â€œdepends on how Detroit evolves,â€ told Crainâ€™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 reporterÂ Chad LivengoodÂ 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?
Thatâ€™s an incredible reversal from the way Schlissel talked about the universityâ€™s benefactor relationship with the city just three years ago, when he talked aboutÂ student volunteer groups working with residents â€œtrying to lift up their city.â€
â€œWe’re serving as a sort of think tank for leadership in Detroit,â€ he said in a U of M publication. â€œI want to use Detroit â€¦ 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,â€ 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 Detroitâ€™s influence increasingly seems to be stretching westward. When the university leadership starts seeing the institutionâ€™s fate as intertwined with Detroit, that feels meaningful.
BEYOND ‘ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT’
So, great — U of M needs Detroit now. But thereâ€™s a bone to pick with Schlissel framing their role in the city around economic impact and glossing overÂ the most critical factor for strengthening the cityâ€™s long-term vitality: education. Itâ€™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 cityâ€™s students? Only 14 percent of adults ages 25 and over in the city have bachelorâ€™s degrees — half the statewide rate — so why not focus recruitment efforts inside city limits, building a talent pipeline, instead of using Detroitâ€™s image to sell out-state applicants on the school?
After all, the cityâ€™s public and charter schoolsÂ sent just over 50 students to the university in 2016. And thatâ€™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.
Thereâ€™s no question U of M has brought dollars, programming and research into the city — one only wonders how the cityâ€™s prospects would have changed if the school never decamped to Ann Arbor (or if another large, wealthy research institutionÂ had taken its place). And the administration certainly deserves credit for recent efforts to enroll disadvantaged students. A new programÂ gives low-income admittees free tuition, and a few different internship andÂ college preparedness programsÂ (inÂ architecture;Â healthcare;Â STEM) are specifically designed for Detroitâ€™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 Detroitâ€™s footprint on its Ann Arbor campus.