New 'U' initiatives land in Detroit

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 9:46pm

In this past week, the University of Michigan has announced several new initiatives centered in Detroit. Of these initiatives are a partnership with Harvard University to address the opioid crisis and the P-20 Partnership with Marygrove College to improve educational institutions. The P-20 Partnership implements a teacher residency, which allows teachers to work in rotations similar those of physicians, and a “cradle-to-career” pathway for students beginning as early as kindergarten. In the past year, the University also finalized the purchase of the remainder of the Horace H. Rackham Education Memorial Building in Detroit, which has been used previously for multiple projects and classes.

James Holloway, vice provost of Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs, said Detroit, as an important urban area, presents opportunities for faculty and staff. He also said there are several questions that arise when approaching a project in Detroit.

“How do opportunities in Detroit align with our mission to develop generalizable knowledge and to educate a new generation?” Holloway said. “How do we do that in partnership and in ways building capacity and realizing opportunities for the various communities of Detroit?”

American culture Associate Professor Kristin Hass is currently teaching a course on Detroit and finds the increased programs and initiatives in Detroit exciting.

“We have a lot to learn from the history of the city and the people of the city,” Hass said. “I wouldn’t want to over-promise on the impact, (but) everybody aspires to have a positive impact on the city.”

Holloway said the goal for initiatives and programs is for the University and the city to mutually benefit. To further the productivity of programs, Holloway said local support is important. The University has 300 projects grounded in and around Detroit.

“In order to accomplish our goals in relation to research and education, we have to do that with local support and local partners. We want to realize the reciprocal benefit, working with local partners. The dialogue is important.”

Underlying the University’s new ventures in Detroit is its pre-existing relationship with the city — or at times, a lack thereof. The University was founded in Detroit in 1817, but departed for Ann Arbor two decades later. In the last half-century, city residents have lived through post-industrial decline, bankruptcy and population loss — and some members of the campus community question the motives behind the University’s partnerships. 

“There was a point at which my recommendation was that we pull out of Detroit altogether — that we didn’t really mean it,” former professor Martha Jones told The Daily last summer. “Now that was more of a provocation, but it’s not so far-fetched. That would be in keeping with one vision of who we are. As an institution, we’re very late in coming to Detroit...we weren’t sure if we wanted to be a university that just happened to be in southeastern Michigan. A few years ago, I wound up doing a survey of all the programs in Detroit emanating from Ann Arbor, and there are scores of them. But after itemizing them, they didn’t really have one coherent mission or vision.”

In a similar vein, University alum Stephen Wallace criticized common research approaches to Detroit. Wallace, a Detroit native, sparked debate at a Ford School policy talk two years ago wherein a Detroit deputy mayor called the city a policy “laboratory.”

“I found that referring to Detroit as a laboratory for public policy experiments (was) very offensive because you’re dealing with people’s real lives,” Wallace pointed out. “I am very fortunate to come out of my neighborhood and go to one of the best schools in the world, but I had a lot of opportunities that some people don’t have and to refer to their lives and their futures as experiments … is a very slippery slope. It causes you to view the city and the people in it as something less than human.

University alum Michael Chrzan is a native of Detroit and now teaches math to Detroit high school students. He said when the programs are well developed, they can be valuable to the community.

“I’m a fan of large institutions doing work like this if it’s done in conscious ways, where there’s clear thought given on the impact on the community,” Chrzan said. “One of the big critiques I’ve heard of Michigan, especially the School of Ed, is that the work they do, they almost are using students as guinea pigs. It’s a fine line between research.”

He also stressed the University does try and balance research with understanding the students.

The P-20 Partnership is a program that Chrzan thinks is needed, emphasizing the idea of a teacher residency would be useful.

“The teacher residency was an idea they were trying to pilot when I was in a teaching intern program,” Chrzan said. “I was really excited to hear about that, we really need it in the profession.”

According to Holloway, the University operates under three principles when meeting with communities for dialogue: recognition, respect and equitable partnership.

“When we engage with a partner in Detroit, they’re giving us their time and their support, and we need to respect that,” Holloway said.

Hass agreed the University should approach Detroit with respect.

“I emphasize approaching the whole thing with humility,” Hass said. “Detroit as a city and the people of the city are not anybody's laboratory. I think the presence of the University could be a wonderful thing.”

Chrzan mentioned growing up in east Detroit, he didn’t hear much from the University. Even today, he said the University might want to consider which regions they focus on and invest in.

“There are a lot of investments being made in northwest and western regions that I’m not hearing about in eastside neighborhoods, which gets into the crisis of ‘New Detroit,’” Chrzan said. “If the University isn’t careful they could wind up exacerbating things like that.”

As for the new space in the Rackham Memorial Building, Holloway said the University could use the new area for classrooms and community dialogue.

“The purchase of the Rackham Building is part of a statement really from the University that we think we have a long-term engagement with Detroit.”