Someone looking to find out about the origins of the University of Michigan’s campus in Dearborn would find it useful to look through the papers of the first director of the Dearborn campus, William Stirton. Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

Stirton served as director of the Dearborn campus from its founding in 1959 until 1968. After he retired, his papers were packaged for removal to the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus in Ann Arbor. However, as one version of the story goes, they were picked up from the loading dock in Dearborn by the wrong truck – the garbage truck.

Elton Higgs, professor emeritus of the Dearborn campus and author of “A Gift Renewed: The First 25 Years of the University of Michigan-Dearborn,” has also heard a version of the story.

“We have our own archives, but as far as I’m aware there are no extensive documents from the Stirton administration in our archives,” Higgs said.

The loss of documents that could have revealed much about the atmosphere in the early days of the University’s regional campuses is perhaps fitting. Today, the Dearborn and Flint campuses are like the lost siblings of their older brother in Ann Arbor – lost in terms of what they could have been for the state and for the University of Michigan had they been managed from the beginning with a coherent plan.

In the five decades since their creations, the Dearborn and Flint campuses have made several advancements in shaping their institutional identities. But too often that progress was made in the face of an unsupportive state government. The two campuses, which are now vital to their regions, were conceived with the purpose of cementing the primacy of higher education and job training in Michigan. Unfortunately, much of that original purpose was disregarded almost immediately after the institutions were inaugurated.

As the state hemorrhages jobs, money and people, it’s a disheartening fact that many of the solutions being proposed today would already be in place had the state realized and invested in the potential of all three campuses of the University of Michigan from the beginning.


The 1920s were a time of change at the University of Michigan – introducing much that characterizes the institution as we know it today. Under the stewardship of then-University President Clarence Cook Little, the Ann Arbor campus saw the construction of a new hospital building, the Michigan League, Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall and Michigan Stadium, which opened in 1927.

The most important point to note for our story, however, is Little’s most controversial proposal: He wanted to establish a separate “University College,” which would house freshmen and sophomores. After two years, some students would be granted certificates for having completed junior college, while the more talented would be invited to continue toward an undergraduate degree.

In his wish for smaller class sizes and personal attention for students through separate colleges, Little was ahead of his time. Never the amenable statesman, Little was unable to win the faculty over to the idea. Despite support from the University Board of Regents – this being an era when faculty opinion mattered – University College never rose beyond notes and schematics by the time of Little’s resignation in early 1929. It remains, however, the first idea of a branch college considered at the University in the 20th century.


As Robert Berdahl, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, said in a 1998 speech extolling the values of flagship state universities, the post-World War II years were the era of the “second enormous expansion of higher education.”

“Colleges were growing rapidly, new colleges were springing up closer to population centers . It was a remarkable time to be in higher education,” said Berdahl, who currently serves as president of the Association of American Universities.

It was during those boom years that both branch campuses of the University of Michigan were born. In 1957, enrollment at the University was 22,180, the highest total since the war. Simply put, there was a need for higher education.

Then-University President Harlan Hatcher saw that enrollment would only rise further, yet he was unwilling to accept that rising enrollments must be accompanied by falling standards. Fortunately, another solution surfaced.

Flint Junior College, founded in 1923, was co-opted into the University of Michigan in 1956 as a regional campus. That same year, the Ford Motor Company approached the University with an offer of land and money to build an institution in Dearborn, which would open in 1959. From a business point of view, Ford had much to gain from having a branch of the University in its hometown.

“They had a vested interest,” said Higgs, the Dearborn historian. “They really, I think, had in mind that they were going to develop a sort of a general motor institute here in Dearborn.”

And so it was that both campuses got their start, and Dearborn’s case became especially illustrative of the institutions’ lost potential.

“An assumption was made that the real call for education in this area was in the business and engineering areas,” Higgs said. “So, the emphasis in the beginning at Dearborn was on business and engineering with sufficient liberal arts courses to support those programs.”

Higgs said business and engineering students at Dearborn participated in a co-op program that required them to spend at least one trimester interning in a position related to their field of study.

In other words, Dearborn was intended to be the type of institution Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been talking up in recent years: science- and business-oriented with plenty of practical job training, creating economic growth for the region. Alas, Michigan’s state legislature was every bit as suspicious of higher education institutions then as it is today.

Change came for Dearborn when its initial role as a senior college for transfer students was deemed less than cost effective.

“The big crisis came in the late ’60s,” Higgs said. “The campus was still very small and therefore very expensive to run.”

That first decade proved fateful for the state of higher education in Michigan today. According to the records of the Office of the Chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn, an eight-member Dearborn Planning Study Committee was created “to evaluate the operation of the campus and to plan for its future development.”

The committee had several recommendations. The campus was to expand to a four-year institution (which it did in 1971). It had to be geared toward meeting the needs of the Detroit area and had to prepare to be able to accommodate 5,000 students by 1980. Most importantly, the committee recommended “a long-range plan for campus physical development should be undertaken that would provide for the projected enrollment.”

And that’s when the state failed the fledgling campus’ aspirations. As long as Dearborn was just another senior college graduating a handful of engineers and English majors every year, the state had no problems. The moment it became an ambitious institution looking for more resources and the opportunity to play a larger role in the state, the legislature tightened the purse.

As Dearborn explored a $19-million plan to add several buildings and expand campus in the early ’70s, the state turned a blind eye. As the chancellor’s archives note:

“Funding for the projects was never granted by the main campus nor by the state, and the development program as presented by the consulting firm was never implemented. Instead, the University of Michigan at Dearborn began a series of self-financed renovations.”

Dearborn moved forward on its own to become the campus that it is today. But how much more could it have been with just a little help from Ann Arbor, or better yet, Lansing?

“It was up to the people at Dearborn to determine how they were going to develop and even if they were going to continue to survive,” Higgs said.


The state of Michigan, of course, was not alone in facing a drastic rise in college enrollment in the postwar years: California’s case was similar, at least initially. With two large University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles, California state leaders realized that the enrollment spike would require immediate, concrete action to organize higher education in the state. As is rare in such stories, the unprecedented plan became a reality through the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California.

The difference in California was the presence of a visionary who saw both first-class and widely-available higher education as a ticket to the state’s economic prosperity: then-University of California President Clark Kerr. Even in an era of economic uncertainty similar to our own, Kerr rallied the state legislature to support the Master Plan.

Kerr’s plan avoided the problems and objections first raised in California at the founding of the Los Angeles campus and here in Michigan during Little’s administration. In both cases, faculty feared the diversion of resources to multiple institutions would cause unhealthy competition and perhaps detract from the prestige of the flagship institution.

Michigan’s solution to this was to launch two campuses that would never be allowed the opportunity to develop into anything resembling the main campus.

“There was not a master plan in the state of Michigan,” Higgs said. “There is a (planning committee), but my understanding is that it never had the power to do that kind of planning. Their presence was never a significant factor in the development of U of M-Dearborn or U of M-Flint.”

California’s solution was more overarching and ultimately more productive. As Berdahl said, the Master Plan “simultaneously accomplished two vitally important things: by differentiating clearly the missions of the three levels of higher education, it provided both universal access and the delineation of excellence.”

The Master Plan managed that feat by setting up a three-tiered system of higher education throughout California: the UC system, the California State system and a network of community colleges. Its great success in California had a lot to do with educators and legislators coming together to launch a bold initiative and accept the risk of failure to achieve a higher ideal for the state’s future.

Berdahl credits the Master Plan for bringing “enormous dividends to the state.” Indeed, the technology boom that put California at the cutting edge of 21st century innovation can be attributed in part to the presence of several large, accomplished research institutions in the state.


Comparing Michigan to California may seem unreasonable today. The University of California system currently has six campuses that belong to the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 leading American and Canadian research universities. The University of Michigan, along with Berkeley, was a founding member of the AAU, but the state of Michigan has since seen just one institution added to that list (Michigan State University in 1964), whereas California boasts an additional five public and three private institutions that are part of the AAU.

But if this is an unfair comparison today, it is only so because of decades of negligence on the part of the state of Michigan. The University of California was, after all, initially built in the image of the University of Michigan. However, Berkeley has been able to spread its considerable wealth and spawn regional campuses that now surpass it in some categories, whereas Michigan’s regional campuses were condemned never to advance that far.

Both Dearborn and Flint had enormous potential to bloom into the same type of regional powerhouses California has benefited from. The campuses were founded on forward-thinking ideals, but have never been given the opportunity to grow to fill the expanding needs of the state.

Dearborn today is a strong liberal arts college with a respected engineering program, and 83 percent of its graduates stay in the state of Michigan. As Dearborn spokesman Terry Gallagher puts it: “We’re generating the leadership of industries and communities in the area.”

A focus on the local community and economy has been Dearborn’s driving force since its founding, but how much more comprehensively would the institution be able to fill that purpose if its roots in engineering and business had been cultivated by the state? Located at the heart of the world’s motor capital, Dearborn could have been the center of research and innovation that foresaw and mitigated the state’s present economic predictament.

And while Flint is as distinct from Dearborn as it is from Ann Arbor, Flint spokeswoman Jennifer Hogan stresses that the campus is proud to be integrally linked to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

“We are three campuses of the University of Michigan, as opposed to three separate campuses,” Hogan said.

Flint has expanded significantly since its inception in 1956 and is a vital feature of the city of Flint and Genesee County.

“The campus does quite a bit to impact the economics of this community,” Hogan said. “A lot of growth has happened and that is positive for the city of Flint – to take buildings that were not being used and to turn the property over to the University so something so positive and productive could be built instead.”

The slated opening of Flint’s first dorm this summer has ushered in an exciting time for the campus. This could also be the right time for the state to utilize the immense potential of the Flint campus – a meaningful institution in a city gutted by the departure of General Motors. It could blossom into a more broadly vital institution in a time when the state of Michigan is experiencing the same strife Flint did 20 years ago.

Though the scale of the research conducted at both regional campuses is minute compared to Ann Arbor, it is a significant seed that can and must be carefully cultivated.

Stressing that Flint already emphasizes applied research in fields like biology and physical therapy, Hogan said, “At our core, the academics are what matters, and research is a part of that, so we’re looking to grow because in general as a campus, we’re trying to grow.”

Gallagher stresses also that Dearborn is already a research-oriented institution.

“I don’t want to discount the value of the research we do here,” he said. “We do have an active researching faculty, and they are making contributions to the local economy.”

Dearborn reported research appropriations of about $6,051,786 in 2007. That includes a mixture of federal and state grants as well as industrial and commercial research supported by the auto industry.

“It is an expectation of our faculty that they are also researchers,” Gallagher said.

It’s never too late

It’s easy to look at the current state of Michigan’s economy and be tempted to throw in the towel. Even Berdahl, the ardent champion of California’s Master Plan, doubts California’s bold initiative could be recreated anywhere today. In Michigan, the state legislature and Gov. Granholm appear to be perpetually at odds in responding to the state’s economic depression – the governor stressing the importance of higher education and the legislature pinching pennies.

We must remember, however, that California’s Master Plan was also born in a time of economic hardship and still overcame apathy and occasional hostility in the state legislature. A similarly comprehensive proposal for Michigan might actually quell the legislature’s suspicions of Granholm’s ambiguous plans to expand education and job training.

In any case, it isn’t too late to get started – especially because Flint and Dearborn, not to the mention the state’s other 12 public institutions, have come so far on their own.

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