Portland footwear designer proposes to reopen closed Detroit Black college
Detroit — A Portland footwear designer said Tuesday he will reopen Michigan's only historically black college and university next year in Detroit with a design focus.
D’Wayne Edwards, the founder of the PENSOLE Design Academy in Portland, Oregon, is behind the draft proposal for state authorization to recognize the former Lewis College of Business as Michigan’s only HBCU.
If approved by the state, it would give Detroit — one of the largest Black cities in the United States, according to 2020 Census data — what Edwards called the "first design-focused HBCU."
Lewis College of Business closed in 2013. The reopened school would be known as the PENSOLE Lewis College of Business and Design. It would be the nation's only HBCU to reopen after closing, Edwards said.
The school would exist as a joint venture with the College for Creative Studies, CCS President Don Tuski said. If approved, PENSOLE will operate under the College for Creative Studies' accreditation.
By focusing on design, Edwards said, the college would offer a different education than what's found at other HBCUs.
"This is a need we have," he said to dozens of people gathered on the original site of the Lewis College of Business. "We're going to do this together."
PENSOLE Lewis College would not grant degrees like a typical college. Instead, Edwards said, it would work more like a certification program where the school works with brands to sculpt courses in design to meet their needs. If students were interested in getting a degree as well, they'd be able to "stack" classes at the College for Creative Studies to earn a diploma, Edwards said.
The PENSOLE college would be "majority tuition-free," he said. Brands would pay for students' tuition and housing, Edwards said, and in return, get a pipeline of talented students ready for work. He said he specifically works with brands to make sure every student has a job or internship when they complete their program. Current program sponsors in Portland include brands like Nike, Asics, Adidas, New Balance and other shoe and clothing brands.
Until a permanent location can be developed, the PENSOLE Lewis College would be housed at the College for Creative Studies' A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education on Milwaukee Avenue in Detroit. Specific courses will be announced later in the fall. Enrollment for the new school is expected to start in December, and classes are scheduled to start in March.
Tuski said he felt the joint venture with PENSOLE would make the College for Creative Studies "more accessible."
"One of the most important things about art and designers is the need to hold people accountable, hold corporations accountable and make sure that diversity and equity are part of our process," he said. "We're excited to start doing more of that."
Among the new HBCU's founding supporters are Target, through the retailer's diversity and inclusion work, and Dan and Jennifer Gilbert via the Gilbert Family Foundation. The Gilbert Family Foundation has committed $500 million to projects in Detroit to help improve economic opportunities for those living in the city.
"The Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design is an institution that will cultivate a diverse pipeline of talent ready for jobs of the future while creating equitable access to opportunities for our city's residents," Jennifer Gilbert said Tuesday.
The amount of the Gilbert Foundation's monetary support wasn't disclosed.
It is expected that state lawmakers later this month will introduce legislation to recognize PENSOLE Lewis College of Business and Design as the state’s only HBCU. If it gets state authorization, the school can get federal approval and seek HBCU recertification from the U.S. Department of Education. If approved, the school would be eligible for specific federal funding.
Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett said Tuesday he was excited to see the school open in "one of the most important Black neighborhoods in the country."
"We are going to continue to have population opportunities that the city needs, the education opportunities that will make us continue to be great," Mallett said.
Edwards described the Lewis college historically as "a critical source of economic impact for the city’s Black community." He said General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Michigan Bell hired their first Black office employees from the college.
Edwards' experience prompts school
Edwards wanted to be a footwear designer as a teenager, he said, but there wasn't the kind of program that would allow him to pursue that in his hometown of Inglewood, California. He got into the industry by working his way up at LA Gear before moving on to other companies including Nike, where he served as design director and famously became of several people to design an Air Jordan.
He got his start as a teacher first by being a mentor to others who wanted to follow in his footsteps. When he retired from designing in 2010, Edward then opened the PENSOLE campus in Portland, where several shoe brands are located or have offices. By his estimates, the school has more than 500 alumni working for major brands, and approximately 95% of the student body comes from a "diverse or multicultural background."
Having a program like the one he is building in Detroit would have made a big difference not only for Edwards himself, he said, but also many of his friends and people he grew up with.
"As a Black male in the '80s growing up in Inglewood, the probability of me being dead or in jail was higher than me getting a corporate job," he said. A program like the one at PENSOLE could have "saved a lot of people. My hope is, it's gonna save a lot of people still to this day."
The PENSOLE Lewis College would serve aspiring Black creatives, designers, engineers and business leaders.
Officials of the new school didn't say how many students they expected to attend the new program. Edwards said his goal was not to hit any specific enrollment target but instead to focus on "the quality of students."
"I want to make sure we have the right students," he said. "So if that number is 100 or if the number is 1,000, we want to make sure we have it right. The volume is not really important. What our industry doesn't need is more designers, our industry needs better ones."
How college started
The Lewis College of Business was founded in Indianapolis in 1928 by Violet T. Lewis, who opened a campus in Detroit in 1939 and eventually closed the Indiana school to focus on the Michigan one. Lewis, who was also one of the two founders of Gamma Phi Delta Sorority Inc., graduated from the secretarial program at Wilberforce University in Ohio, which led to a job at Selma University in Alabama.
There, she taught classes on stenography in the university's business department. She eventually moved to Indianapolis to be closer to family, but she wanted to create a place where students, particularly Black women, could get a high-quality business education.
The school started as a nine-month stenographic school. Under Lewis' leadership, it became an accredited junior college and served as a pipeline for students to find jobs working for auto companies. The school was designated as an HBCU in 1987.
There are about 100 HBCUs across the nation, said Robert Palmer, a Howard University professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
HBCUs began serving African American students primarily in the South when higher education institutions denied access to Black students, Palmer said. Today, the federal government defines an HBCU as an institution founded prior to 1964 to provide educational access to African Americans.
"They were created out of a system of segregation," said Palmer, whose research examines access, equity, retention, persistence, of students of color, particularly among HBCUs.
HBCUs make up 3% of all institutions in higher education, but Palmer said they "are more relevant today than ever."
"They disproportionately produce the nation's judges, teachers, doctors," Palmer said.
In addition, more colleges and universities are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but often students of color have to adapt to the White culture, leave parts of themselves behind and even after that face racism, he said.
HBCUs create culture and curriculum that are relevant to African American students, he said. The faculty and staff look like the student population, and serve as mentors and role models, Palmer said.
“On campus of HBCU, it’s the whole village — from peers to faculty to administrators — that are working collectively to support and maximize the potential of students,” Palmer said. "When you feel like you belong, you are much more engaged with other students, attend class, spend time on campus and that translates into retention and higher graduation rates."
Luminaries who have attended HBCUs include Vice President Kamala Harris, who graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Rev. Jesse Jackson, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University; film director Spike Lee, who graduated from Morehouse College in Georgia; and former Detroit resident and Motown singer Gladys Knight, who graduated from Shaw University in North Carolina.
College organizers didn't provide names of Lewis college alumni. But one alumna was Cassandra Woods, a longtime state staff director for former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who died in 2013.