Later this month, the University of Michigan will launch the Center for Social Solutions, an interdisciplinary organization dedicated to tackling contemporary social issues. Earl Lewis, a former University faculty member and administrator, who currently serves as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, put forth the idea for the Center and will be moving to Ann Arbor in June to direct the initiative.
Lewis has a long history in academia. He taught at Berkeley from 1984 to 1989, then accepted a position at the University of Michigan, where he taught for 15 years. Lewis relocated to Emory University in 2004 to serve as provost and teach as a faculty member.
Lewis was named President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2013 and has since been working in New York City. As president of the Mellon Foundation, Lewis has spearheaded a number of projects, such as a book series called “Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society,” which explores the political and societal importance of diversity.
After his presidency ends in March, Lewis will officially become the head of the U-M Center for Social Solutions. Lewis plans to stay at the University for 10 years before moving on to other work.
According to Lewis, the Center will pull students and faculty “across school and disciplinary lines” to research current problems and brainstorm concrete solutions. The Center for Social Solutions will channel the University’s brainpower and resources into direct action.
“I came to realize that in the academy, in certain parts of the academy, we spend a lot of time both theorizing and studying problems,” Lewis said. “In other parts of the academy, we try to think about applications and clinical solutions.”
Lewis said he is interested in “framing the right question, but also coming up with the best solution.”
The Center for Social Solutions will address three key areas of concern. The first pillar of the center’s mission is diversity and race. One project related to race issues will be the “Our Compelling Interests” book series, which Lewis will continue working on at the University.
“I’m bringing it with me to Michigan and to the Center,” he said. “We have published two books so far to date in partnership with Princeton University Press. We have subsequent volumes already either in development or poised to come out in the next year.”
The Center for Social Solutions will develop other initiatives, beyond the book series, to address what Lewis says is “the nation’s need to think about diversity as an asset.”
In addition, Lewis hopes to work through the center to increase dialogue about the history and legacy of U.S. slavery.
“What we want to do with the center is to work with universities, museums, arts orgs, theatres, social justice institutions, public parks, national parks, etc. to begin to look at that history in a more integrated fashion,” Lewis said. “So much about the American present, even when it’s not stated, is about that part of the American past. Slavery looms there in the shadows, and what we want to do is actually see if we can’t bring it out into the spotlight and deal with it directly.”
The center will also address issues of water access. Lewis wants to develop a model for moving water “from flood-prone areas to drought-stricken areas.”
“It’s not an engineering problem, we can actually move water,” Lewis said. “It’s a fiscal problem. It’s a regulatory problem. It’s an environmental problem. It’s a social problem.”
One reason that water distribution is a social issue, says Lewis, is that proximity to water often correlates with socioeconomic status.
The final focus area of the Center for Social Solutions is the future of work in the face of increasing automation. Lewis sees new technology as important and beneficial, but considers job displacement as a result of mechanization a serious social concern.
“My question about the future of work is this: How do we think about the dignity of labor in an automated world?” Lewis said.
The center will conceptualize ways to make new technology considerate of human needs.
“I want the center to really work with the technologists who are developing these new tools and these new systems and these new ways of working to think about the dignity of labor and how we craft that into all our design features,” Lewis said.
The three core interests of the Center for Social Solutions are, in Lewis’s opinion, urgent and challenging problems. Still, he thinks the center will be adequately equipped to address race, water and the future of work.
“These are three projects that I can imagine, in partnership with others, that we can solve some parts of, if not the whole thing,” Lewis said. “If we’re successful by any measure it will improve the common good.”
The idea for the Center for Social Solutions has been in the works for quite some time. In developing his plan, Lewis reached out to colleagues across the country, discussing the feasibility of a Center for Social Solutions.
Lewis decided to establish the center in Ann Arbor because of the University’s many resources and because of his connection to the University.
Faculty members and administrators at the University were receptive to Lewis’s proposal. President Schlissel, LSA Dean Andrew Martin and Provost Martin Philbert have worked alongside Lewis to pave the way for the Center for Social Solutions.
“Earl Lewis is an outstanding historian and educator, and we are fortunate that he is returning to the University of Michigan,” Dean Martin said in a press release. “Not only will he be a strong leader for the Center for Social Solutions, but he will provide wisdom and experience as a faculty member in LSA's departments of History and Afroamerican and African Studies.”
Over the summer, Lewis will continue to sort out logistical and administrative details, such as hiring staff and acquiring space on campus.
Lewis has a specific vision for how the project will unfold. The Center for Social Solutions will be organized into “collaboratories,” or interdisciplinary groups of people focused on the same problem. Lewis hopes to get students involved in the center’s work as research assistants and team members. In fact, the center will eventually offer a curriculum tied to various social projects.
Lewis believes the Center for Social Solutions will be an impactful way for students to put the skills they learn in the classroom to use.
“Imagine yourself being able to, 10 years from now, say, ‘I worked on something where we not only crafted a question, but we came up with a solution,’” Lewis said. “Imagine yourself actually coming up with possible solutions to three of the greatest grand challenges.”
Yosef Gross, LSA sophomore and co-president of the University’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a public policy organization, looks forward to seeing students get involved with the Center for Social Solutions. Gross hopes the center will serve as a resource for students who are passionate about social activism.
“I think it’s great that there’s going to be institutional support for students working on these issues,” Gross said. “People in the Roosevelt Institute can hopefully use this center to help further their projects and get guidance and expertise.”
Though Lewis will only direct the Center for Social Solutions for a decade, he can envision University of Michigan students and faculty carrying the initiative forward.
“I may want to do a few other things in my life, and if you’re a good leader, you’re always positioning other people to come in behind you,” Lewis said. “The center itself may live well beyond 10 years.”