The University Record, May 24, 1999

29 hit the road in the first class of Road Scholars

By Janet Mendler
News and Information Services

Stops on the Road Scholars tour included Detroit, a pre-war truck assembly plant in Flint (above), an educational career center in Saginaw, the decommissioned and virtually moth-balled Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore, a restored theater in Muskegon and Michigan State University’s National Superconducting Cyclotron. Photo coutesy of the Office of State Outreach
A hissing, tail-twirling, puffed-up snake brought the Michigan Road Scholars to a screeching halt, but it was the only impediment in the 1,200 mile path of the 29 faculty members and administrators who trekked across the Great Lake State the first week in May. Even an errant luggage key posed no problem; someone else’s key fit, dispelling any sense of security created by luggage locks.

With grades for their classes completed, on May 3 the first class of Road Scholars picked up name tags and fact-packed three-ring binders with background information on each site to be visited, then left for Detroit, the first stop on a trip that took the group to a pre-war truck assembly plant in Flint, an educational career center in Saginaw, the decommissioned and virtually moth-balled Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore, a restored theater in Muskegon, Michigan State University’s National Superconducting Cyclotron, and numerous places in between.

Funded for two years by the Office of the Provost and conceived by the state outreach coordinators in the Office of the Vice President for Government Relations, the Road Scholars Program is designed to allow faculty to explore the state‘s economy, educational systems, government, politics, health and social issues. The tour also was an opportunity to increase understanding between the University and the people it serves, and to introduce the travelers to their students’ hometowns. Community leaders, economic development directors and politicians joined the group for meals and sometimes aboard the bus, as did a retired FBI agent who talked about gang activity in Michigan.

While very few of the faculty knew each other, or even about their colleagues’ research and teaching interests, before the trip, they were virtually unanimous in citing the opportunity to learn from one another in their evaluations and suggested that even more time be given to such discussions on future trips. Well before the trip ended, they talked about creating an alumni group and already were planning to meet. Said one participant, “I’ve never been a part of anything at the University more fruitful.”

Joan McGowan reviewed her work at the School of Dentistry on the elimination of “spit” tobacco use among athletes—and passed out toothbrushes. Anthony England, engineering, explained how he became an astronaut, deftly fielding the ubiquitous question about personal waste disposal on his Apollo and Challenger flights. Pharmacist George Kenyon fielded questions about his avocation, bird watching.

David Scobey, Arts of Citizenship Program, was “impressed by the range of civic activism and community-building energy that we saw in every community we visited. The trip especially dispelled the myth of Detroit as a ‘dead city.’

We saw incredible energy and creativity there.” Like others, he wasn’t surprised to find that the U-M is ‘both an object of great affection for people around the state, and sometimes a source of frustration at our perceived arrogance and distance.”

David C. Musch, ophthalmology and epidemiology, had three reasons for applying—to understand better the communities within Michigan that provide a large number of U-M students, to put a positive face on the University for those communities and show that U-M faculty truly are interested in the needs and resources of the state, and to consider with fellow travelers the potential for collaborative interdisciplinary efforts to address needs and explore resources.

Lincoln Faller, English, found Detroit’s Focus: Hope to be a dynamic organization “working to transform and empower people who would otherwise have little or no chance in life, and doing so in an atmosphere of palpable racial harmony and cooperation, bringing people young and old together across divisions of class as well as race.”

Dennis Miller, art and design and a Michigan native, left the state during its deepest recession, returning three years ago. As he prepared to return, “I assumed that economic hardship would still be the chief characteristic that defines most of the state. This impression was both reinforced and dispelled. In Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Oscoda, St. Ignace and Lansing, the emotional and physical scars left from severe economic decline are still painfully apparent. Even in wealthier communities, such as Grand Rapids and Traverse City, plans for expansion and renewal hold an edge of desperation that I found disturbing.

“I was impressed by the resilience and determination that I saw in every place we visited. Despite all the calamities that have happened to Michigan—sociologically, economically, spiritually—these people don’t give up. I certainly regained a sense of pride in my home,” Miller added.

Deborah S. Walker, nursing, new to the U-M three and a half years ago, applied for the tour “because of my unfamiliarity with many of the places in Michigan where our students and preceptors in the nurse-midwifery education program reside. I felt that it was very important to be able to relate to them ‘in context’ by knowing more about their communities.”

The trip suggested new areas of research to several faculty members. A group led by Sidonie Smith, women’s studies, moved to the back of the bus at one point to talk about developing a state-focused, interdisciplinary course to encompass the tour’s elements—history, politics, ecology, labor, social concerns, arts and humanities.

They may well have such an opportunity, according to Graduate Dean Earl Lewis, who chaired the Road Scholars Advisory Committee and agreed to provide small grants for possible projects resulting from the tour.

“I would hope that from the kinds of exchanges that result from the bus tour we would see new partnerships among faculty from across campus, in addition to new working relationships between community organizations that were visited and our faculty,” Lewis said.

Commenting on the University’s close ties with the state, Provost Nancy Cantor said, “The University has long played an active role in the development of the state. The Road Scholars Program enabled a group of faculty and administrators to become acquainted with a broad cross-section of the state and its citizens, as well as to spend time with one another. In return, citizens of the state met a sterling sample of this University’s faculty. As a result, new relationships were forged and the potential for new interactions developed. This effort should prove a significant new chapter in the University‘s engagement with the state.”

Susan Froelich, associate director of the Office of State Outreach, who worked on organizing the program over a nine-month period, noted, “There were some truly wonderful moments. Community people were genuinely pleased to have the faculty visit and learn about their respective areas; the faculty themselves were impressive, fun, sometimes irreverent and sometimes slightly demanding, but always good solid people who care a lot about the world around them and want to do whatever they can to help make it a better place.”

Suggestions made by faculty for future trips included a slower pace, more time to interact with one another, and increased opportunities to meet with students and “ordinary people.”

Other faculty on the trip were Martha Aliga, statistics and mathematics; Jason T. Young and Kate Warner, architecture and urban planning; Rodney Ewing and Rachel Goldman, engineering; Paul Fossum, education, Dearborn; Paul Resnick, information; George Cooper and David Porter, English; David Caron, French; Youxue Zhang, geological sciences; Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola, Spanish; Charles Bright, Residential College; Nancy Reame, nursing; Sherman James and Marc Zimmerman, public health; Kathleen Faller, social work; and Madhukar Angur, management, Flint.

Support staff on the tour, in addition to Froelich, were Lew Morrissey, Richard Carter and Leslie Wimsatt, Office of State Outreach, and Janet Mendler, News and Information Services.

For more detailed coverage of the tour, visit the Web at www.umich.edu/~urel/facultytours.html.