Howes: MI’s Big Three schools bolster Detroit’s revival

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

A friend recently observed that one reason Detroit could never again be a great city is because it cannot claim a great university.

No, it arguably claims three — Michigan State, the University of Michigan and Wayne State, which is anchored deeply in the Midtown neighborhood it is helping to reshape. Together, they make one of the leading university clusters in the United States, critical resources for drawing talent and exploiting economic change.

The schools have grown progressively more intertwined over the past decade in state economic development efforts, the revival of Detroit and cooperative strategies to leverage their respective strengths through something called the University Research Corridor.

“You’re seeing the fruit of a 10-year relationship,” UM President Mark Schlissel told The Detroit News this week. “It’s the growing familiarity. We serve the state. We’re proudly public.”

It hasn’t always been that way. Like the city-suburb divide that cleaved this region for way too long, Michigan’s Big Three research universities hewed to separate tracks tied to legacy, reputation and institutional rivalry. Helping Detroit seldom rose to the top of the list, especially in East Lansing and Ann Arbor.

What changed? Leadership, the weight of the Granholm era’s Lost Decade and a coalescing of statewide business and civic leadership under what is now Business Leaders for Michigan. The CEO roundtable aimed to integrate the universities into policy debates by offering their presidents seats at the proverbial table.

That matters, hugely, in a knowledge-driven economy. Each school is a multi-billion dollar knowledge enterprise with obligations to the public because they are public universities consuming taxpayer dollars. Each musters expertise and research capability that can bolster efforts to create jobs and compete successfully for new investment in everything from advanced manufacturing and lightweight materials to producing engineers in the autonomous vehicle space.

“It’s very robust,” Steve Arwood, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., says of the URC. “We have very vibrant venture capital here. More impressively, we have three major universities that have committed themselves to technology transfer.”

Ties to the universities helped secure Detroit’s selection for the Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow Center and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation — both symbols that Detroit can manufacture the future, not just the present and the past.

And the engineering capability of all three is a vital component of the mobility strategy that state and auto industry leaders are crafting to create the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti and to build Michigan’s statewide “Planet M” brand around all things mobility.

“The huge advantage that Michigan has over Silicon Valley is we actually know how to build things,” Schlissel said, admitting the Detroit he knows in his second year as U-M’s president is not the decrepit Detroit he read about in The New York Times. “I’m really bullish about the historic and technical expertise here.”

No kidding. The challenge is harnessing that capability in the private and public sectors. It’s using it to draw and keep talent, and to leverage it to create jobs and stake competitive advantage.

The Big Three schools and their URC are important players in that eco-system, across the state but especially inside Detroit. Over time, the city’s revival will be influenced as much by business and higher education as it is by moguls like Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch with their prodigious wallets and grand visions turning reality.

Even as Gilbert continues his downtown real estate spree and the Ilitch family’s District Detroit rises north of Foxtown, the universities are making their contributions. The numbers, touted in the group’s ninth annual sector report, tell the tale.

Titled “Engaging Detroit,” the URC report says the three universities contributed $958 million in economic activity to the city last year, equivalent to $1,400 for each resident; conducted $263 million in research; managed 340 programs across Detroit; and accounted for 11,600 jobs in the city.

An inflection point is nearing. The convergence of the traditional auto industry with the high-tech sector exemplified by the big names of Silicon Valley is arriving as growing numbers of Michigan college students are clamoring for opportunities to spend a semester studying in Detroit. And doing it.

“There’s just this thirst to be part of something exciting,” says Lou Anna Simon, president of MSU. “They see they can make a difference in Detroit” — a city that’s big enough to be globally significant and small enough for individuals to make an impact.

Case in point: MSU’s Detroit semester aims to offer slots to as many as 300 students. But demand, closer to 500 students per term, cannot be met because of limited housing options, even with help from President M. Roy Wilson’s Wayne State.

Second case in point: Michigan and MSU are seeing a reversal in the exodus of graduates to Silicon Valley, Seattle and Chicago. They cite the young buzz around Detroit, more job opportunities and the arrival in southeast Michigan of Google, Amazon and other tech players that would have been hard to find here little more than five years ago.

“We probably haven’t done enough to move even closer to the universities in terms of talent attraction and retention,” says the MEDC’s Arwood, adding: “They’re contributing unbelievable strength to the state economy.”

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Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.