In 1817, the Catholepistemiad, now known as the University of Michigan, was founded in the heart of Detroit. Relatively small and publicly funded, its reach only widened when it found its way to the suburbs 20 years later, transitioning from a small finishing school to the largest institution of higher education in Michigan. With the help of new regents, land developers and private donors, the University became the flagship university it is today.
But just because the University moved out of Detroit doesn’t mean it has lost all connection with, or obligation to, the city. The U-M Detroit Center, for example, serves as a research and entrepreneurial hub in Detroit, offering space for collaboration and exchange. U-M students also have opportunities to learn and work in Detroit, with the most popular option being Semester in Detroit. SID is an immersive undergraduate program that lets students gain professional and personal experiences in Detroit, where they live for a semester. The University’s roots in Detroit remain planted as its students and faculty continue to stay involved in the city in multiple ways.
The University’s newest planned project is the U-M Center for Innovation in Detroit, which was announced in March. Costing $250 million and taking a possible three years to complete, the Board of Regents tout that the UMCI will spur economic growth in Detroit, create jobs and center on research and education. The center will largely house U-M graduate programs for engineering, sustainability and architecture, and will offer career development programs to Detroiters. Despite the project’s aspiration-forward launch, the University has important concerns to address about the center’s core function and main demographic.
According to the University, UMCI will offer graduate programs, community development and engagement opportunities, but it is unclear what these plans will look like in practice. With only broad details about the graduate courses and who can enroll, many Detroiters are left wondering how UMCI will benefit their community in the long run. Signing a legally-binding community benefits agreement would establish certain requirements the University must follow or risk litigation. Stipulations in the agreement might include hiring local construction workers to directly aid Detroit’s economy. Unfortunately, the University balked at signing the contract, deciding that short “listen-and-learn sessions” with local nonprofits had been enough to educate themselves on community desires. By avoiding legal accountability, the University suggests it is not as dedicated to community-building as it says.
Moreover, a collaboration between the University and Detroit educational institutions like Wayne State University has the potential to foster more meaningful community impact. Currently, Wayne State offers programs like The Frank Student Clinic and Free Legal Aid Clinic that have successfully served Detroit residents for years. If the University of Michigan were to invest in, collaborate with or support Wayne State’s efforts, it could yield more positive outcomes for Detroit residents and U-M students alike. In the same vein, the U-M board could allocate more resources toward its often-neglected U-M Dearborn campus. Located in Metro Detroit and committed to DEI endeavors, U-M Dearborn tends to go unnoticed when it comes to resource distribution or administrative revitalization. Instead of starting a whole new, costly and relatively unfledged project, the University could first start by bettering its relationship with its satellite campuses in Dearborn and Flint, as well as neighboring universities in the city.
There are significant racial and socioeconomic differences between the populations of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Detroit is made up primarily of people of Color, while Ann Arbor is largely white. Detroit’s median household income is less than half of Ann Arbor’s average. Programs offered at SID seem to emphasize. But, what benefit does this relationship offer to Detroit residents?
Too often, the University’s initiatives in Detroit treat the city as a locale open for temporary research followed by a swift exit. While the buildings the University has sponsored in the city are there forever, at every turn we should question whether further investment fits both the University’s objectives and the desires of residents. Detroit isn’t a city that needs the University’s charity, and we shouldn’t treat it like a foreign entity that just serves as a place for more research and volunteerism.
It’s imperative that the University, with the introduction of the U-M Center for Innovation in Detroit, approaches its continued involvement in the city of Detroit with sincerity. The University should not encroach into the city to improve its charitable image, glean research from its citizens and then disperse. Rather, it must continue to work alongside the positive interactions established with existing academic and philanthropic programs and provide an equitable benefit to the community that will be providing us with their land, resources and spirit. The University of Michigan has an obligation to Detroit.