The University of Michigan has accepted an invitation to collaborate with the city of Detroit in building the Detroit Center for Innovation, it announced Wednesday morning. The $300 million research and education center will provide new programs and courses of study for both undergraduate and graduate students. 


University President Mark Schlissel explained in an email statement the location of the Center is key to furthering the University’s goal of fostering a collaborative relationship with Detroit. Additionally, he cited the University’s potential role as a “pipeline” to funnel innovation into the city to sustain it for years to come. 


“The center will help make our work in Detroit even more comprehensive, aligned to our mission, and responsive to local needs,” Schlissel wrote. “The Detroit Center for Innovation will further the economic development of the city and region. U-M’s role as the center’s anchor is to provide a pipeline of talent and platform for research collaboration to help grow and attract businesses and entrepreneurs, while positioning the future workforce for success in a dynamic and diversified economy.”


The new center will be situated on a failed jail site located on on Gratiot. The construction of the penitentiary was halted in June 2013 when the building process pushed the budget $91 million over the $300-million budget. Since 2013, the half-built jail has remained abandoned on the lot.


The site will be anchored by a 190,000 square foot research and education center. In addition to the academic portion of the building, the 14-acre site will also feature residential units, a hotel, a conference center and a business collaboration and incubation space. Production is slated to begin in 2021. 


He went on to explain the center will provide degree programs through the University’s Ann Arbor campus tailored to the needs of the local economy, in the hopes of sustaining long-term growth for the city. 


“These could include senior-level undergraduate and graduate courses and stackable certificate credentials in highly relevant, growing areas such as mobility, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, privacy, data science, financial technology, entrepreneurship, sustainability, and advanced manufacturing,” Schlissel said.


The development of the site will be funded in large part by donations from Stephen Ross, the University’s largest donor, and Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert, as well as other public and private funding sources.  


In a statement to the University, Ross expressed his donation to the center was rooted in his desire to give back to the city that made him into the man he is today.


“I spent my childhood and many of my young adult years living and working in Detroit and have long wanted to find a way to have a real impact on my hometown,” Ross said. “The University of Michigan helped spark my entrepreneurial spirit and nurtured my curiosity for all aspects of innovation, leading me to not only become a founder, but an incubator and investor in a variety of technologies and businesses.”  


The center’s development occurs in conjunction with other efforts by the University to expand into the city, namely the Detroit Center, Rackham Memorial Building, and “cradle to career” program at Marygrove College. 


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan expressed excitement for the growing relationship between Detroit and the University, as it will allow the city to flourish in an era of rapid technological innovation.


“I am pleased President Mark Schlissel accepted the invitation to have U-M power this center,” Duggan said. “Detroit is the ideal location for this extension for the prestigious University of Michigan and will help keep our city competitive in the emerging industries of tomorrow.”


The University announced the Innovation Center would feature an interdisciplinary committee made up of faculty from the University’s three campuses, led by James Hilton, U-M Vice Provost of Academic Innovation, to develop academic programs and design the building in the most efficient way. Additionally, the faculty committee will convene to re-strategize every few years as an effort to efficiently target the most pressing issues of the surrounding community. 


However, not all were impressed with the University’s decision to take on such an expensive project, especially when the Dearborn and Flint campuses still lack significant funding. In response to the announcement of the Innovation Center, LSA junior and spokesperson for One University Amytess Girgis tweeted, “Perhaps the innovation of funding Flint and Dearborn.”  


In an interview with The Daily, Girgis cited the One University Campaign — a coalition aimed at increasing parity between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses — and brought up that significant disparities still exist between students. 


While she commends the University for the important work they can potentially do in Detroit, she said she sees the University’s decision to invest so heavily in the Innovation Center in Detroit as misaligned with its commitment to the campaign.


“We commend the Administration on its professed commitment to support the people and communities of Michigan,” Girgis said. “I just have to wonder why, if U-M is truly a public institution, it is allowing its Flint and Dearborn campuses to suffer from abhorrent lack of funding that it could very easily rectify? I guess the voices of students and faculty in these communities aren’t as strong as that of Dan Gilbert’s.” 


Some students also questioned the University’s decision to go into partnership with Ross and Gilbert. LSA senior Sharif Krabti said the University’s investment in the downtown area of Detroit as opposed to areas that receive less attention is an example of gentrification.


“I don’t really see how those two folks have a vested interest in the communities in Detroit, outside of the Downtown-Midtown area and that business development there,” Krabti said. “It’s important to recognize — and the University really should know this considering its faculty are the ones teaching this and have this understanding — that business doesn’t mean that it’s going to be prosperous for communities that live there.”

Krabti, who participated in Semester in Detroit this summer, said there are Detroit-based initiatives the University participates in that help the city. He said this project, however, does not because it only benefits rich people and would rather see the resources in this project used elsewhere.

“I grew up about an hour outside the city, and I kind of am wondering was this all before,” Krabti said. “To me, it’s the latest example of U of M being complicit in that process of gentrification.”


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