The University Record, January 18, 1993


Commitment to Collaboration: Toward a Detroit Initiative for the University of Michigan

By Barry N. Checkoway
Professor of Social Work and of Urban, Technological and Urban Planning

University and Community

The University of Michigan—created by the state, designated to receive resources from public taxation, and mandated to account to the public through its Board of Regents—has a social responsibility to its community.

Historically, the most important contributions of the University have come through the development and dissemination of knowledge. But new models are evolving in which public research universities develop knowledge and enhance education in ways which serve the community. Quality research, teaching and service are emerging as complementary activities in which excellence in one activity is increasingly inseparable from the others.

The University has personnel with knowledge and skills that could contribute to the community, but new strategies are needed to adapt the institution to changing conditions. Some universities have created bureaucratic structures and special staff for this purpose. Other universities have incorporated initiatives into the existing infrastructure through mechanisms which facilitate collaboration and strengthen the educational mission.

President James Duderstadt, to his credit, recognizes this responsibility with particular reference to the city of Detroit. At the Detroit Rackham Building in October 1990, he said:

“The University of Michigan feels a particular responsibility to this city. ...Just as Detroit and the University of Michigan have been closely linked in the past, we believe it essential that we become more closely linked in the years ahead. ...I hope our children can look back with pride and gratitude and say that in this time and at this place the University of Michigan, the people of Michigan, and of the city of Detroit took a stand. They came together and worked together to build a new model of community for the good of the children. ...I hope that we can say that we made a difference, that together we became a mighty force for change. ...Nothing we do in our lives is more important than this.”

President Duderstadt also recognizes the importance of planning and coordination in this endeavor. At Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in June 1990, he said:

“The list of our activities in Detroit is long and growing longer. ...But in the coming months and years we need to do a better job of planning and coordinating what we do so that it has a greater strategic impact.”

Proposed is a new “commitment to collaboration” in which the University undertakes a Detroit Initiative to develop knowledge and enhance education in ways which serve the overall community. Such an initiative would not be centered in new bureaucratic units and special staff, but rather would place leadership in academic units whose faculty have already demonstrated a commitment to developing knowledge through collaboration on campus and in the community.

Detroit Needs and University Opportunities

The University of Michigan has a unique opportunity to serve the Detroit metropolitan community in moving toward the 21st century. Social, political and economic changes have drastically worsened conditions for individuals and institutions intended to serve them. Communities have been challenged to improve their capabilities with fewer resources. There are boundless opportunities for work in this realm.

Detroit is a major metropolitan area. It was an early center of trade and commerce which grew with shipping and manufacturing, boomed with the automobile, and expanded as a regional concentration of industry and technology, business and finance, transportation and communications, human services and cultural institutions—including health and education, churches and civic associations, print and broadcast media, libraries and museums, art and music. It is the sixth largest city in the United States, a major metropolis in North America, and an important part of the international urban system.

Like most large cities, Detroit has experienced episodes of growth and decline. Following years of sustained growth as the hub of automobile production, it has suffered a decline in population and urban activity. Economic recession, changes in industry, and reductions in federal and state expenditures have contributed to decline and caused problems throughout the area. Studies document the pattern of private institutions disinvesting from the city in favor of exurban and sunbelt locations, and of public institutions disinvesting by reducing the levels of services provided. Federal and state cutbacks compounded by chronic class inequities and racial segregation have exacerbated conditions for many people at a time when their needs are increasing.

But Detroit also has a history of planning and renewal that, if built upon, could counteract its recent decline. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Detroit had one of the best public planning programs in the country. In the 1970s and 1980s, citywide civic groups planned programs to redevelop the riverfront and revitalize selected sections of the city. In the 1990s neighborhood organizations are working to renovate housing, operate social services and expand economic development. The current situation will produce new demands, and the future of Detroit will depend on its ability to respond to change.

The University is prominent in the Detroit metropolitan area. The University is more than an educational institution; it also is a major employer, a provider and consumer of goods and services, and a powerful social and economic unit whose decisions affect Michigan in general and the metropolitan area in particular. Hardly a day passes when the media fail to report the impacts of a University decision on the area whose destiny it shares. One purpose of the University is to engage in scientific and instructional programs of value to Michigan, but this has not usually been framed in terms of its metropolitan area. The situation in Detroit presents an unparalleled opportunity for the University to engage in mutually beneficial collaboration.

A Detroit Initiative would draw on existing academic units, encourage exchange among researchers, and increase integration of the campus with the overall community. Academic units that are already active include architecture and urban planning, business administration, education, engineering, Institute for Social Research, Institute of Public Policy Studies, law, LS&A, medicine, natural resources, nursing, political science, psychology, public health, social work and sociology. But at this time most of these units work independently of the others.

A Detroit Initiative would promote projects that maximize chances of success and involve the community in the process of planning and implementation. University units would carefully assess personnel and commitment, without undertaking projects that cannot “deliver the goods,” and without engaging in activities that may be construed as attempts to “save the city.” Lofty rhetoric—raising expectations without taking actions or producing results—misrepresents the University and disserves the community.

A Detroit Initiative would have a physical presence in the city. Civic leaders are highly sensitive to the fact that many decisions affecting Detroit are made by absentee institutions that lack local accountability. The University’s physical presence, while it would provide no assurance of success, would demonstrate commitment and enhance collaboration.

Although a Detroit Initiative would naturally reflect the intellectual interests and teaching programs of the University, the challenge would be to relate research and instruction to community concerns while also serving the core academic objectives of the University. This approach would be consistent with the concept of “new public service,” and could provide a model for universities and communities elsewhere.

Commitment to Collaboration

The University is strategically well situated for a Detroit Initiative. The University was founded in Detroit in 1817 and has a history of collaboration with the city. University faculty develop knowledge from diverse academic disciplines and professional fields, and teach undergraduate and graduate courses which educate prospective community leaders. They provide experiential learning and professional internships in diverse fields, and promote partnerships for education through this work. University graduates hold leadership positions in public agencies and private institutions, and relate to the University through extensive professional networks and alumni activities which are a resource on which to build.

University faculty offer continuing education for professionals in the Detroit metropolitan area. For example, engineering faculty use community education to bring information on state-of-the-art technology to engineers in the area. Public health faculty consult with health officials about ways to control health costs and improve the quality of health care. Social work faculty have annual symposia which provide opportunities for practitioners to learn about developments in social welfare.

University faculty conduct research on issues of importance to the community. For example, social work faculty study social interventions that benefit the Black family, and promote participation in urban neighborhoods. Urban planning faculty conduct research on urban security, including a communications system to handle emergency police and medical calls. Natural resources faculty involve high school teachers and students in research to monitor pollutants in the Rouge River.

In addition, architecture faculty conduct workshops to encourage children to envision the type of neighborhood in which they would like to live. Law faculty provide legal assistance for community-based economic development in urban neighborhoods. Education faculty involve parents in efforts to motivate learning of underachievers in the schools. These activities provide a flow of ideas into the institution, and a strong foundation for future collaboration.

Elements of a Detroit Program

The University has a substantial stake in the Detroit metropolitan area. But new initiatives are needed to strengthen planning and coordination of activities consistent with objectives. In a complex public research university, such initiatives are planned and implemented at individual, school, college and university levels. Following are some suggested examples of new initiatives:

Strengthen our Detroit presence by immediate use of the Detroit Rackham Building as a base of operations for program coordination and educational programs.

The Detroit Rackham Building was opened in the 1940s and until the 1980s had a program of research and continuing education. The building has offices, classrooms, and conference facilities which, with minimal renovation and public relations, would show commitment to collaboration. The building is located in the educational and cultural heart of the city near downtown and accessible to groups from the entire community. Parking is available in an enclosed deck on the side of the building, and the area is convenient to major transportation routes. Presently the building has an admissions office for student recruitment but does not have a research or educational program to offer the city.

Establish a process for planning and coordination of activities.

A central office or academic unit would have responsibility for this process. The office would involve one or more persons with expertise in urban affairs and skills for launching a program. The office would be responsible for facilitating communications among representatives of academic units, who would meet regularly and comprise a supportive network. An advisory group would represent the campus and the community in order to increase involvement and provide accountability. The office would propose projects and raise funds, but its initial efforts would largely be voluntary in nature.

Formulate a mission statement consistent with the role of the University and needs of the community.

This statement would convey a commitment to develop knowledge and enhance education in ways which serve the community. It is important that University leaders—such as the provost and vice president for academic affairs—clearly articulate this mission as a means to motivate voluntary activity until funds can be raised.

Collaborate as a partner in participatory action research projects that serve the community.

Research would be stimulated by an Urban Research Initiative and a Request for Proposals inviting researchers to propose pilot projects for consideration and selection in accordance with scholarly criteria and community needs. Special efforts would be made to represent a wide range of campus units, and to stimulate projects that meet quality standards. The Office of the Vice President for Research has experience and expertise to develop incentive funds and manage the research process. Participatory action research is a methodology which well fits this situation. As Barbara Israel has written, this approach emphasizes mutual agreement on objectives consistent with the interests of research partners; respect for partner differences and resource capacities; community participation in identification of issues; collaborative planning in which all parties contribute their expertise; co-learning in which University members recognize community members’ experience and expertise; and an empowering process in which all participants develop as a result.

Develop knowledge and skills through a program of education and instruction,

such as:

n Undergraduate course on the American city. This course would use Detroit as a case study for learning about urban affairs more generally. Experiential field trips and recent research would be featured.

n Graduate course on urban affairs. Several schools and colleges would benefit from courses that increase interaction between academic disciplines and professional fields, and foster contact between students and the urban community. Hands-on community involvement and solution-oriented research projects would be part of the curriculum.

n Doctoral seminar on participatory action research for community change. This seminar would involve interdisciplinary groups of doctoral students in research projects which create new knowledge and respond to community needs through use of cutting-edge methodologies exploring issues in practical rather than merely theoretical ways.

n Undergraduate and graduate field placements and internships. Some schools and colleges already provide professional practica and service learning opportunities in the city. They would benefit from coordination of internships and educational activities that complement work in the field.

n Continuing education for professionals. Lectures, seminars and workshops by faculty and practitioners would provide a vehicle for participants to develop knowledge. These programs—held on evenings, weekends and summers—would include skills sessions in organizational development and community capacity-building.

n University-community leadership seminar. This ongoing seminar would involve selected faculty and civic leaders to analyze urban issues and assess solutions to problems facing the city. Some sessions, like those of the Cleveland Economic Club broadcast on National Public Radio, would be open to a broader audience.

n Annual lecture on urban affairs. This annual lecture by a distinguished faculty member, civic leader or recognized expert would present newsworthy information and innovative insights for understanding of urban life.

Communicate knowledge and disseminate research through book publications, working papers, and other media for scholarly and general audiences, such as:

n Working paper series for discussion and dissemination of findings from research. The series would recruit papers by the ablest available authors in their areas of expertise, and provide a regular flow of information and analysis on urban issues.

n Book series on urban policy problems and prospects for the future. This would provide a forum for new ideas and cutting-edge research by faculty and resource persons, with the University of Michigan Press as a natural publisher.

n Educational media project for general audience. This project would employ mass media and computer learning to increase information exchange in the community. Community-based organizations would receive assistance in using electronic mail for access to relevant databases, building on the work of the Office of University Relations.

n Provide technical assistance and community consultation. University personnel—such as the DRDA—would provide support at nominal cost by making assistance available, e.g., electronic communications and computer information, databases on funding support, workshops on proposal preparation.

n Strengthen recruitment and admission of students from Detroit. University admissions staff are already working with local schools, and financial aid staff are helping students understand the educational opportunities available to them. In contrast to a “brain drain” in which institutions drain local resources by taking students out of their neighborhoods, this effort would be planned and coordinated with community-based organizations starting the educational process at an early age and encouraging students to develop their communities as well as themselves.

Toward a Detroit Initiative

A Detroit Initiative would contribute to knowledge through research relevant to the community; education through teaching and training in areas of expertise; and service through activities representing the best traditions of the public research university. It would provide opportunities for the University to collaborate with neighboring institutions, and for local organizations to create durable linkages with a major research university. It would provide a foundation for partnerships with public agencies and private institutions with interest in improving the urban infrastructure.

This initiative would contribute to implementation of the “Michigan Mandate” to strengthen the multicultural community. Emphasis would be placed on efforts to involve faculty from the campus and other universities with interest in urban affairs; promote research in areas of special interest to minorities; improve minority student recruiting by inviting youth leaders from the metropolitan area to participate in activities; and develop and integrate multicultural material in the curricula of participating units as a result of this work.

Finally, this initiative would provide a model of university-community collaboration and the “new public service.” It would recognize the importance of knowledge and education consistent with quality academic standards and commitment to community service. It would show how universities might build on an existing institutional infrastructure with facilitation by academic units with a record of performance. Done with excellence, it would exemplify the “new public service” for universities meeting the challenges of a changing society.

Address comments to Barry Checkoway, School of Social Work, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. The author acknowledges the suggestions of Seth Borgos, Larry Coppard, Eddie Edwards, Nancy-Gail Gilliland, Jeffrey Howard, Charlene Johnson, C. Philip Kearney, Rochelle Lento, Gerald Smith, Frank Williams, and Harold Johnson, who contributed to an earlier draft of this document.