The University Record, January 31, 2000

U needs ground rules for community-based research

By Rebecca Doyle

Given 10 minutes and a list of questions, three administrators outlined their school's commitment to and benefits from community-based research in the Detroit area. The three were panelists in a discussion titled "Deans' Roundtable on Community-based Research in Detroit" last week, sponsored by the Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning.

Paula Allen-Meares, dean of the School of Social Work, spoke of the benefits not only to the community but to the students themselves, who have an opportunity to see much of the academic side of their research at work in Detroit.

"It exposes them to population and service issues that many of them know too little about," she said. Faculty, too, benefit from "theory grounded in local research" that brings issues out of the classroom and into the community. She cited projects in the School of Social Work that combine student and faculty interaction with the communities in such issues as school violence and mental health, and that give students firsthand knowledge of conditions in minority and ethnic communities.

Collaborations between the School of Social Work and psychology, public health, nursing, medicine and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program are ongoing, she said. But in addition to the collaboration between schools and colleges at the U-M, Allen-Meares would like to see the University "putting its arms around the community," and not just the Detroit community.

"Why only Detroit?" she asked. "Why not Muskegon or Flint or rural Michigan?"

She also noted that the U-M needs a set of ground rules and a shared vision of what community-based research should be, and should take the time to develop a "code of practice" that would apply to all units involved in community-based research.

Sherman James, the John P. Kirscht Professor of Public Health and director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health, represented the School of Public Health in place of Dean Noreen Clark, who could not attend. James said that the approach used in urban communities makes a great difference to the population there, and the School of Public Health has worked closely with several non-academic groups in order to eliminate the distrust that Detroit residents have built up for researchers.

"The University has had an image problem in Detroit," he said, although research projects in several locations had bettered the atmosphere. "Beyond that is suspicion and antagonism. It is vitally important to build in a shared vision." James noted that the image of the University's research in Detroit is that researchers come in, get their data and then leave without sharing any useful results with the community.

"People see us as a 'hit and run' organization, and feel used and exploited," he said.

James also talked about the School's involvement in the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (URC), which has made progress in establishing interventions for the East Side African American and Hispanic populations. The URC is an umbrella organization with representatives from the School of Public Health, the Detroit Health Department, the Henry Ford Health System, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and members of several community-based organizations. Their mission states that the URC's goal is to "develop sustainable missions" so that residents do not feel that they have been used or exploited.

The approach, he says, has made a difference in some areas, but other parts of the city still resent and are antagonistic toward the URC partners.

"But we have eliminated a lot of the distrust we saw five years ago," he noted.

Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, talked about the need for a central place that students and faculty could convene in the city. He called for a merging of the missions of the University and the city, saying that the overall mission should "not be just studying the problems in the community, but working to solve them."

He pointed to students' work on a design charrette, a five-day, intensive design and planning workshop and competition to develop design proposals for public review. Most recently, students and professionals worked to develop a plan for an area that includes Tiger Stadium, the old Wonder Bread factory and the Michigan Central Train Depot. The charrettes were well-received, he said, and generated a lot of publicity.

Kelbaugh called Detroit "one of the most beleaguered cities in the world" and cautioned that if the University's community-based research "just raises expectations and doesn't produce results, it won't be long before even the charrette has a bad reputation."

Discussion with the audience included views on faculty incentives for community service, how to involve the many units in the University in the community and where community service ranked in the mission of the University.

Panelists agreed that further discussion was beneficial and made loose plans to meet again.