It all started in 1817. Augustus Woodward, Rev. John Monteith, Fr. Gabriel Richard and William Woodbridge forged a plan to establish the University of Michigania. But many would be surprised to know this story isn’t set in Ann Arbor: It takes place in Detroit.
The University was established in Detroit in 1817 and moved to Ann Arbor 20 years later. While the University prospered, Detroit has lost much of its population and economic activity, and gained a national reputation as an eyesore.
But today, there’s a shift in this relationship. Though many problems still exist, like the aftermath of the city’s historic bankruptcy, it’s now cool to live, work and play in the city, from Corktown to Midtown.
There’s little cool factor in the University’s presence in Detroit, according to administrators. Rather, they say the relationship between the ‘U’ and the ‘D’ has been 196 years in the making.
‘We’ve been here before it was cool’
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said in a statement that the University’s support of the city is inherent if one considers that the institution has had roots in Detroit since the early 1800s.
“Even if the University had not been founded in the city of Detroit, there would likely be a type of interaction that you see today,” Wilbanks said. “But I would argue that the bonds of the relationship are so historic that it has helped to guide our interactions with the city for many, many years.”
Wilbanks — who has played a large part in organizing the administration’s efforts in Detroit — said the University has been in Detroit for some time and will continue that presence.
Wilbanks said the recent spike in public and private involvement in the city has only made it more enticing for University research and programs.
“There is a cool factor right now – it’s attracting students, and it’s attracting more companies to be a part of Detroit’s rebirth. Right now, we see many in the private sector working hard to achieve success – and all of that enthusiasm lends itself to a more vibrant city,” Wilbanks said. “I would make the case that it makes it even more attractive for our students and faculty to work in an environment where they can contribute to the city thriving well into the future.”
In recent years, companies have flooded the city. Singer Kid Rock, a Detroit native, capitalized on the city’s recent fame with his “Made in Detroit” clothing line. Several tech companies, including Twitter and Uber — a popular car hire app — have launched offices in the city, and an array of startups have popped up.
Billionaire Dan Gilbert, chairman of Rock Ventures, LLC, and Quicken Loans — the nation’s third-largest mortgage lender — will soon own a large proportion of the downtown area, which he has inundated with workers from his family of companies.
Dan Mullen, vice president of development for Bedrock Real Estate Services — the real estate arm of Rock Ventures — told MLive that companies and organizations are moving to the city because they know they’ll be noticed as Detroit rebounds. He pointed to New York-based Roasting Plant, which opened one of its unique coffee shops in Detroit earlier this year.
“If you were to open up another coffee shop in downtown New York or Chicago, you probably wouldn’t be able to receive the same amount of traction or PR or have the same affect in general,” Mullen said. “Folks are realizing this and taking advantage of it.”
If, as Mullen says, moving to Detroit means easy attention for businesses, is the University attempting to follow the “Detroit fad”?
Public Policy senior Donavan McKinney, vice chair of the Central Student Government Commission on Detroit Engagement and a Detroit native, said it’s possible that work in Detroit could be used to create a positive image in the face of a poor racial climate on campus and low Black student enrollment.
“I would hope the University is doing this just to promote awareness, and is conscious of the fact that we have one of the most influential cities that has ever crossed the history of cities,” McKinney said.
McKinney said he’s been supportive of the University’s efforts, including the Detroit Connector shuttle project, the weekend bus service to Detroit he helped organize.
“I really don’t feel that U of M is here for show,” Adell Austin Anderson, director of the University’s Detroit Center, said. “Because it’s been decades … it has been here during times where it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be with Detroit, when Detroit in the ‘70s was seen as the murder capital of the world and stuff like that — U of M was here in some form or fashion.”
The Detroit Center — which opened in 2005 — is a visible symbol of the University’s involvement in Detroit. A large building sign, lamppost flags and window art bearing the iconic Block ‘M’ make the University’s presence on the corner clear.
Anderson sees the Detroit Center more as a headquarters — where University faculty, students and staff can get support for their service and research efforts in the city’s many underserved neighborhoods. This is evident in the University’s opportunities for students in Detroit. The Semester in Detroit program began in 2009 and allows students to live and study in the city for an extended period of time.
Even as the city filed for bankruptcy this past July, Craig Regester, associate director of the Semester in Detroit program, told The Michigan Daily he didn’t believe students would be dissuaded from studying in the city.
The University isn’t the only college visible in Detroit. Midtown — where the Detroit Center is located — is already home to a major university — Wayne State University. A few blocks down Woodward, Michigan State University’s Detroit Center is housed in a two-story, 22,000 square-feet building built in 1912, while the University’s space takes up only part of the first floor of an office building. Even Grand Valley State University, a much smaller institution, has entered the game, snatching a beautiful space in the heart of downtown within clear visibility of Comerica Park — and the appropriate advertising signage to match.
Compared to its competitors, Anderson said the University hasn’t created a lot of buzz about its presence in the city.
“The University has been here, but there hadn’t been this visible symbol,” Anderson said. “We probably don’t do a good enough job in letting people know about everything that happens here.”
A symbiotic relationship
Elizabeth Birr Moje, Education professor and the School of Education’s associate dean for research and community engagement, said the University does stand to benefit greatly from its work in the city of Detroit. But she’s not referring to any sort of reputational benefit.
Moje said the University has shifted from an effort focused on outreach to one that is focused on engagement and service learning. Rather than simply sending individuals to the city to volunteer in underserved communities, faculty, staff and students in Detroit help those in need and also gain valuable educational experiences.
“We have just as much to learn from our service as we have to give,” Moje said.
Education students and faculty work directly with the Detroit School of Arts, located down the street from the Detroit Center. Along with a coalition of other campus units, the school also works in several institutions around the area. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program has also begun offering research projects in Detroit, Moje said.
In Moje’s line of work, working in a city like Detroit helps both teachers and researchers gain insight into a unique educational environment.
“Doing research in Detroit provides one with an opportunity to connect with people who are really struggling with some of the biggest challenges in our country right now,” Moje said, noting that knowledge gained could be applied to struggling communities around the country.
In regards to practicum work, Moje called working in a city like Detroit “the ultimate teaching challenge,” noting that it’s exactly where she wants her students. She said educators in Detroit are the best example of teachers who are working extremely hard to meet the needs of their students.
“If you’re trying to learn how to be a teacher, part of what you’re learning is how to be a teacher in a particular context, and to figure out, ‘How do I work with a community that I may not know well?’” Moje said.
Student leaders on campus agree. Public Policy junior Patrick Sier, chair of the Central Student Government Commission on Detroit Engagement and major events director for the Detroit Partnership service-learning student organization, said that regardless of how one looks at it, the University stands to benefit from a healthy, vibrant Detroit.
“When you have a stronger, greater Detroit region — which Ann Arbor is really a part of — then you have a stronger University at the same time,” Sier said. “The University acknowledges from a self-interest standpoint that when Detroit rises, they rise, and when Detroit falls, it hurts them too.”
LSA senior Samantha Edwards, the Detroit Partnership’s executive director, said it’s up to students to give Detroit a chance.
“Students should at least try it out. You can’t count it out before you try it,” Edwards said. “College is a learning experience. It’s a time for you to experience a more diverse atmosphere. It’s about broadening your horizons.”