Howes: New model for Detroit public education cushions Marygrove blow

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
After 92 years on its historic campus, Marygrove College will close its doors at year-end. But plans will go ahead for a P-20, cradle-to-career, education complex spearheaded by the Kresge Foundation, the University of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

When the Kresge Foundation spearheaded a $16 million financial rescue of ailing Marygrove College two years ago, the overarching goal was to prevent the historic campus from going dark in its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The effort succeeded, despite confirmation Wednesday that Marygrove's “grand experiment to transition to graduate-only studies,” in the words of President Elizabeth Burns, failed and the college will close permanently in December. Yet partners in the P-20 preschool-to-graduate program, a cradle-to-career vision for the campus led by Kresge and the Detroit Public Schools Community District, say they remain committed to the program.

An incoming ninth-grade class of 120 students at newly named The School @ Marygrove will begin classes in September. Teachers in the University of Michigan’s innovative teacher residency program will be on campus. And groundbreaking for a Kresge-financed Early Childhood Center is expected to occur before the end of the year — all of it poised to fill the educational void left by the college's closure.

Marygrove College will cease to exist at year-end, a victim of steadily declining enrollment, a heavy debt burden totaling $8.7 million, annual interest payments of $250,000 and an expected operating deficit of roughly $2 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. But the goal of educating Detroiters on the 53-acre campus, a longtime mission of its founding Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, will continue.

The hall of the Liberal Arts building is seen at Marygrove College.

"Oh, it's completely an opportunity," said Kresge CEO Rip Rapson. "In many ways, it opens a suite of doors that are even more powerful than we imagined."

Those include possibly replacing Marygrove's role in the P-20 education model with programs organized by the University of Michigan or Oakland University — discussions already occurring at high levels, according to two sources familiar with the situation. Pending accrediting approval, Oakland University has agreed to a "teach-out" plan that would ensure Marygrove graduate students within a year of graduation can complete their degrees at partner schools.

The buildings and land comprising the Gothic campus, opened in 1927, belong now to the Marygrove Conservancy. The nonprofit formed last year to preserve and repopulate the school with a new model for public education and community redevelopment, one planners believe is critical to reviving Detroit neighborhoods.

The demise of Marygrove traces a now-familiar Detroit story, especially over the past decade: an institution evoking the city’s Golden Age lurches toward collapse, a victim of changing times, demographic shifts and management that failed to react to both before declining revenue and rising debt proved too much to bear. Its downward spiral unspooled over decades, not years, culminating this week in a financial crisis to end its second chance.

Circumstances have not been kind to Marygrove. Declining enrollment accelerated, cutting revenue. A still-confidential report by a higher education consultant calling itself Credo exposed shortcomings in the curriculum and highlighted data suggesting Marygrove's trajectory was "unsustainable," Burns told The Detroit News last year.

Worse, a "show cause" rating by the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accreditation body, "basically said Marygrove might not be here," Burns said Wednesday. "That was part of the problem. Having gone on 'show cause' was very detrimental" because it required the college to affix what amounted to official warnings to all marketing and recruitment materials.

"It was worth a try," she continued, referring to the Kresge-led workout and the graduate students-only curriculum. "It was worth a try for Detroit, it was worth a try for the college. There was no guarantee it was going to work. We were just in a real significant hole. It really wasn't in the cards."

The Fisher Room is seen at Marygrove College.

Three days after Christmas in 2016, Aaron Seybert began to realize just how significant Marygrove's hole turned out to be. A former banker for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., he'd been one of Kresge's social investment officers for less than a year when he first started studying the school's financials.

"My first blush of this was this is a mess, a total mess," he told The News last year. "The business model is fundamentally flawed. Enrollment has been down, down, down. They just had antiquated systems. That lack of information was very challenging to me.” 

Standard financial analysis would coldly conclude: Let the college fail, let it go through some kind of bankruptcy workout or financial restructuring. But staff at a foundation like Kresge — whose deepening connection to Detroit includes a total commitment now of $50 million to the Marygrove workout and P-20 project — grasped the risk of collapse, of nothing but darkness in the windows of the school's historic buildings.

That prospect appears to have been averted, thanks to a last-ditch effort by Marygrove management and its trustees to survive — long enough for a Kresge-led coalition of Detroit's public schools, Michigan's flagship university and Starfish Family Services to begin realizing a new vision for education in Detroit.

For that, Detroit and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary can give thanks. The alternative would be much worse.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM