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James Brennan: Donate time to the ‘D’

BY JAMES BRENNAN

Published December 3, 2012

With the departure of University Provost Philip Hanlon to Dartmouth and current University President Mary Sue Coleman’s contract expiring in 2014, Michigan’s administration may become vastly different in the coming years. Regardless of the change, our University must stay committed to the state’s largest city, Detroit.

Michigan has already taken an active role in working in Detroit, but this is only the beginning of what could become a fruitful, long-term relationship. President Mary Sue Coleman has set an excellent example of commitment to the city, overseeing the creation of Michigan’s Detroit Center and the development of multiple outreach, service and learning programs. Our next set of leaders — both the president and provost — must continue and expand upon President Coleman’s work in Detroit.

After decades of deindustrialization, population loss and high crime rates, sparks of hope and revitalization have been spotted throughout the city. The resilient community take it upon themselves to rebuild and innovate, while the downtown and midtown areas are quickly becoming attractive spots for young college graduates to start their new lives at low cost living. It may be hard to notice with nightly reports of shootings, thefts and government corruption, but Detroit is on its way up — and the University needs to be a part of this ascent.

With our massive endowment, far-reaching influence, extensive network of alumni and student body committed to service and innovation, we have the ability to greatly contribute to the rebuilding of a city in need of assistance. Our students and staff are some of the best the state, the country and the world have to offer. As a public university receiving funding from the state, the University’s president and provost should make service to the state a top priority. People have said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: We cannot have a thriving Michigan without a thriving city of Detroit.

The University was founded almost 200 years ago in Detroit — we must stay committed and connected to the city. As Detroit’s position among U.S. cities has risen and fallen, so has the position of the state of Michigan. The state’s economy greatly depends on the status of the city, and by extension, affects the University’s budget and ability to provide for students in a similar fashion. The next president and provost must understand the long-term necessity to assist the rebuilding of Detroit.

This past summer, I spent two months living in the city as part of the University’s relatively young Semester in Detroit program. During my time living in the fast growing mid-town area, I took classes focused on urban studies and worked part time with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. Other students worked in areas as diverse as education, architecture, performing arts and community development. Living in the city, I was exposed to people from walks of life I would otherwise have likely never met, took in cultural experiences unique to Detroit and had a great internship despite only being a freshman. My time in Detroit wasn’t only a way to serve the city, but also a great opportunity to build my resume and develop personally.

After finishing the program, I took a job on a campaign and spent limited time in the city, only visiting weekly for meetings and each time wishing I could stay for longer. I have always had affection for the city, but living there for two months and experiencing day-to-day life as a Detroiter changed my perspective completely. Obviously not everyone can spend an entire semester in the city, but I would recommend something similar to the University’s next administration: make Detroit a requirement.

What I mean is that a program should be established there each year. Every freshman would go to Detroit for a day to learn about the city and perform community service. Logistically, this would be tough, I understand, but hear me out. By requiring a day of service and learning in the city, the University would make it clear to every student the importance of Detroit. Students ignorant of the city’s situation would become better informed and perhaps even discover a newfound commitment to rebuilding Detroit.

I will admit, my proposal is a bit lofty, but the idea of an administration committed to Detroit is not crazy. President Coleman has started the trend, and the Board of Regents must make it clear that this movement to help the city is not ending any time soon. My hope is that in 2014, as I graduate and transition into adulthood, I will be joined in Detroit not only by my fellow alums, but also by a large group of committed students and faculty.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.