Walkable streets, reliable public transportation, affordable retail, healthy dining and safe residential neighborhoods — all things we, as students of the University and residents of Ann Arbor, take for granted on a daily basis. The city, despite some subtle flaws, provides a high quality of life for the vast majority within its borders.

The same cannot be said for many in Detroit, the major metropolis of nearly 700,000 people, less than 50 miles east of Ann Arbor.

A declining population, hemorrhaging resources, high crime rates, a struggling school system and unemployment all culminated in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history just filed on July 18. Needless to say, Detroit could use a helping hand right now.

And the University isn’t doing enough to help the city.

I don’t mean to imply that the University is at all responsible for more than 60 years of progressive decline in Detroit. Nor do I believe that the University must raise the banner as a champion of the city — quite frankly, Detroit citizens and community officials neither need nor want that. But I do think that the University needs to embrace the fact that a healthy, strong and vibrant Detroit is as good for the University as it is for southeast Michigan as a whole.

I don’t intend to minimize current efforts in the city, represented by the accomplishments of thousands of students, alumni and faculty every year.

The Detroit Partnership, just one student organization with strong ties to the city, sends 200 students to Detroit every week during the school year to participate in volunteer programs established in every part of Detroit. Their flagship volunteer event, Detroit Partnership Day, brings 1,400 students to Detroit to volunteer.

Semester in Detroit is another opportunity for University students to engage with the city. It provides a unique opportunity for participants to live in Detroit on the Wayne State University campus, attend classes and work in Detroit.

The University’s Detroit Center in Midtown houses Semester in Detroit classrooms and also accommodates several programs benefiting Detroit residents from various schools across campus. For example, the School of Public Health’s Healthy Environments Project researches and promotes heart health in Detroit neighborhoods, where the death rate from cardiovascular disease is nearly twice as high as state and national averages. The School of Social Work partners with the Skillman Foundation to provide technical assistance in implementing its Good Neighborhoods program in six different Detroit neighborhoods. The School of Art & Design, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the College of Engineering and University of Michigan Health System all have some presence at the Detroit Center.

In reality, the initiatives described here only represent a fraction of the good work being done by the University in the city of Detroit. But even the whole piece remains just a beginning.

The first step toward greater engagement involves expanding students’ knowledge of the city’s history, problems and attractions. To that end, the University, from top to bottom, needs to facilitate a more prominent dialogue about Detroit and can begin by hosting an increased number of speakers discussing the issues Detroit currently faces that see national headlines almost daily.

Just as importantly, more students need to go to Detroit. There’s no better way to learn about the city and all it has to offer than to physically be there. Whether from fear of the city’s negative reputation, ignorance of its treasures or typical student time constraints, too few of my fellow classmates make the trip to Detroit in their four years. The University could facilitate more opportunities to see Detroit and, likewise, better advertise the Detroit Center’s availability to students.

Also, as discussions with Feodies Shipp III, the Detroit Center’s associate director, revealed, some University departments are noticeably absent from the Detroit Center roster. The Career Center is an excellent resource for students on campus and could provide professional development resources, job-search assistance and resume feedback to Detroit residents desperately in need of such services. In May, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics identified Detroit’s unemployment rate to be above 16 percent — devastatingly high compared to the state’s near 9 percent. The University could positively impact the lives of many job seekers by establishing a branch of the Career Center in Detroit servicing, in part, local Detroiters.

There are a number of other positive changes the University could make that would affect Detroit. But the most important is the collective recognition — as students, faculty and staff members of the University — that even though the University is first and foremost a major national public research institution, it also has local roots. And since the University was founded in 1817 in Detroit — before moving to Ann Arbor 20 years later — its roots are deepest in Detroit.

Alexander Hermann can be reached at aherm@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.