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Two decades ago when Detroit was digging itself deeper into economic morass and facing the most devastating economic realities only few could imagine the city triggering an educational “gold rush” by universities.

What was seemingly impossible then is now a reality as several of the state’s notable universities have joined the Detroit turnaround bandwagon, vying for a strong foothold in the city. Some that are already established with offices or satellite campuses are enhancing their presence because they view the growth of Michigan’s largest city as crucial to their own success.

From the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Eastern Michigan to Central Michigan universities the trend is now to have a city-based center through which the institutions can, among other things, engage in Detroit-focused research.

The University of Michigan, for example, which opened its Detroit site in 2005, recently launched a review of the center to assess future potential of the university’s impact on and opportunities in the city. The result of that review — coming at a time when the school, founded in the city in 1817, is celebrating its bicentennial — will determine the university’s Detroit strategy moving forward, according to Mark Schlissel, president of the university whose footprint includes a campus in Dearborn.

“The greatest opportunities for UM to have a positive impact on Detroit will emerge from collaborations involving our faculty and students with Detroit’s government and community leaders to achieve mutual benefits, discover new knowledge and create new educational opportunities in ways that we could not do alone,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel cited Poverty Solutions as an example of an initiative aimed at cultivating action-based research partnerships with local stakeholders and policymakers around poverty. UM also has Semester in Detroit, a program that allows students to live, work and study in the city as part of their coursework.

According to the latest winter enrollment numbers, UM had 2,628 undergraduate students from Wayne County, and last fall 681 undergraduate students came from Detroit.

Michigan State University opened its Detroit site in 2009 that houses several programs including nutrition, financial literacy, anger management, a community music school and admissions offices. In July, the university will mark the 100-year anniversary of its first extension program in Wayne County known as the MSU Cooperative Extension, which also conducts programs in the city.

“Detroit is extremely important to Michigan State. It’s where a large proportion of our students, alumni and other stakeholders live. It’s also a focus for many of Michigan’s and society’s greatest challenges and opportunities, which become points of engagement for our faculty and students,” MSU president Lou Anna Simon said.

“It’s not about putting out signs or building structures but building partnerships whether we’re talking about training MSU doctors, supporting student internships or helping prepare Detroit kids for college or careers,” Simon said.

“Our College of Education partners extensively with DPS. Our College of Osteopathic Medicine operates a medical school at the DMC. Our Product Center is delivering small business counseling. It all flows from our land-grant heritage, which stresses engagement in Michigan communities.”

Simon said MSU has already stepped up its Detroit engagement in the last 18 months and plans to roll out another program this summer. The university last fall had an enrollment of 5,169 undergraduates from Wayne County.

“Over the last 18 months, MSU established the Institute for Advanced Composite Manufacturing Innovation in Corktown and the Popoff Health Clinic on the east side. This summer the MSU Broad College of Business is starting the MSU Executive MBA program at the Detroit Medical Center,” Simon explained. “Right now we are working with the city to establish the Detroit Center for Urban Food and Forestry Systems, a research and extension center on the northwest side.”

MSU is also working to establish a Science Gallery Lab Detroit to engage young people in science and the arts.

For Central Michigan University, its downtown Detroit office is one of six locations in the Metro area.

“The rebirth of Detroit is pivotal to our state and our institution is committed to playing a role in that. CMU and its students will continue their longstanding partnership to the city, its residents and businesses,” president George E. Ross said.

Ross said CMU also wants to forge deep corporate partnerships in the area.

“CMU has an extraordinary partnership with Quicken Loans. About 60 students conduct internships with the company each summer and more than 220 of its employees are CMU graduates,” Ross said.

James M. Smith, the president of Eastern Michigan University, said that university’s Detroit office is part of its ongoing commitment to serving the city.

“Our linkage to Detroit is long term and permanent and we continue to look for opportunities to expand our work, relationships with Detroit, its young people and its community and business leadership,” Smith said. “As part of our EMU commitment to the Detroit Promise we agreed to supply five additional EMU full scholarships.”

EMU also has several initiatives involving DPS which includes preparing students for careers in teaching.

Simply put, Detroit is now a university town and the hope is that this university influx will help in addressing the knowledge and skill gap that is often blamed for the high rate of unemployment in the city.

The image of universities as ivory towers runs counter to the challenges and demands of today’s multifaceted and interconnected communities. So it is instructive that these public universities are increasingly investing in Michigan’s largest urban center.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

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