Semester in Detroit directors release statement questioning Detroit Center for Innovation

Sunday, November 24, 2019 - 5:41pm

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Design by Lizzy Rueppel

Faculty directors of the Semester in Detroit program, an initiative that allows University of Michigan students to study and intern with community-based organizations in the city of Detroit, published a statement Tuesday questioning the ethics and effectiveness of the newly-announced Detroit Center for Innovation. The statement represents the views of SiD directors and does not speak on behalf of SiD as a University and Residential College program. 

The Center, which they anticipate will cost upwards of $300 million, will provide teaching in subjects like technology and artificial intelligence to undergraduate and graduate students. It will also serve as a conference center and hotel in downtown Detroit. 

Plans to open the 14-acre center have received backlash from students and faculty since the announcement was made on Oct. 30 by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. Days after the announcement, Amytess Girgis, One University spokesperson and LSA junior, circulated a petition calling on the University to consult with Detroit residents before undertaking large development projects. It also criticized the University for building the Center on the site of a since-failed Wayne County jail. As of publication, almost 400 people have signed the petition. 

Tuesday’s statement was written by SiD Director Stephen Ward in collaboration with other SiD faculty and poses four questions to the University related to the funding of the Center and the impact the project will have on Detroit residents. 

One question touches specifically on the University’s choice to accept the donation of the Center from businessman Dan Gilbert, who allegedly used investments in Detroit in order to evade taxation. Gilbert’s possible tax evasion is tied to 2017 tax-cut legislation enacted under the Trump administration that encourages investors to develop high-end projects in “opportunity zones” — typically lower-income neighborhoods in major American cities. 

“Is this project attempting to manipulate UM as a public institution to benefit private interests at the expense of the general public?” the statement said. “Through this partnership, could UM be enabling tax avoidance and the inappropriate use of federal ‘opportunity zones’?” 

Stephen M. Ross, a real estate mogul and University donor who is helping in the development of the Center, has also been accused of income tax evasion. In 2017, Ross allegedly engaged in a tax evasion scheme after claiming a charitable tax deduction for a University of Michigan data center in Southern California was worth nearly $30 million more than the property’s appraisal value. On May 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the original judgment in a hearing.  

When asked about the University’s choice to receive the donation from Gilbert and Ross, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the center is aligned with the University’s goals of benefitting Detroit’s economy while creating opportunities in the city. 

“This new Detroit Center for Innovation enhances that legacy by meeting another pressing need — helping to further the economic development of the city and the region,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. “As the president wrote in his message to the campus community last month, the university will help 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.”

Ward said he chose to frame the SiD faculty’s concerns with the center as a series of questions in order to challenge conventional views of important investors like Ross and Gilbert and spark conversation about where the University’s priorities lie. He said Gilbert’s choice to invest in the city of Detroit is more focused on exploiting his personal benefits than improving life for Detroit residents. 

“In the mainstream media representation of him, Gilbert is presented as the ‘savior of Detroit,’ or as a beneficent figure,” Ward said. “But that is a limited ... view of him, and we’re asking people to recognize that many others see him differently.”

Echoing Ward, Girgis reiterated her disappointment with the University’s choice to build the Center and voiced support for SiD faculty’s response. 

“This statement speaks volumes about the direction the University of Michigan has been going in recent years,” Girgis said. “(It is) moving more and more from ‘it should be a public institution and a beacon of higher education and community engagement in Michigan’ to a corporate-type entity that cares more about business interests, about gentrification and about its own portfolio of returns than it does about the people of Michigan.”

Ward, Girgis and former SiD students said they were concerned plans for the Center were created mainly by the University’s administration without much input from students, faculty and organizations that work with the Detroit community. 

“This idea was generated and developed … without our awareness,” Ward said. “And it’s not that we, as SiD, necessarily should have known, but it seems that there were many others at the University who could have been included and who were not.”

In a statement to The Daily, Ruby Schneider, LSA senior and student recruitment team member for SiD, said she wished the University had spoken with organizations based in Detroit before announcing their plans to the University community. 

“As a student, I was disappointed to see that the University of Michigan and the City of Detroit did not consult with stakeholders in their respective communities about the project,” Schneider wrote. “Going forward, I hope to see the University embrace some of the values that I developed during my Semester in Detroit: learning from, working with and respecting frontline communities.”

Ward said he learned of the plan when Schlissel invited him and other University faculty to a meeting on Oct. 24, six days before the announcement of the Center’s opening was sent to the University community by email. Ward, who was teaching at the time of the meeting, asked SiD Associate Director, Craig Regester, if he would attend Schlissel’s meeting in his place as a representative from SiD. 

Regester said the meeting served as a way for Schlissel to update faculty on the University’s various investments in Detroit and receive input from those working with the Detroit community. He noted how even though SiD faculty produced a statement related to the Center, there are many other people at the University doing important, community-centered work in Detroit. 

“I definitely think the University of Michigan would benefit from listening, gathering, coordinating, surveying the many, many people who have been involved working in Detroit through U-M connections for the past several decades,” Regester said. “I think there’s a lot of knowledge — in the statement we issued, we acknowledged that … we’re not unique as a program on campus that has been trying to build relationships with Detroit and Detroiters.”