Chapter 5: Staying True to Mission and History: University of Detroit Mercy's Role in the Revitalization of a Historic City and Its Communities

by Antoine M. Garibaldi, Ph.D.

Posted on January 10, 2018

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Nearly 20 years into the 21st century, university presidents are developing potential solutions to ensure their institutions' sustainability and viability for future decades.

These varied strategies are being created at a time when colleges and universities are simultaneously addressing numerous challenges, such as declining numbers of high school graduates in most states, coupled with intense competition for college-aged students; and parental and student concerns about the cost of college and its accumulated long-term debt. Private institutions also have the added pressure of being tuition-dependent and must increase their enrollment annually to generate adequate operating capital and supplemental revenue for academic and campus improvements. Additionally, because many private college students are first-generation postsecondary students and also come from families of low socio-economic status, these schools must provide substantial scholarships and grants.

A two-year or four-year degree opens the door to many more economic possibilities because a high school diploma is insufficient to obtain employment in Michigan and other states in the next decade. The most recent educational attainment data of 2014 indicates that 9 percent of Michigan adults age 25 and over have earned an associate's degree, while 17 percent have earned a bachelor's and other advanced degrees. Thus, today's college graduates must achieve more academic credentials than their parents and grandparents to be prepared for the seven or more jobs that they will have over their lifetime of evolving careers.

Today's college graduates must achieve more academic credentials than their parents and grandparents to be prepared for the seven or more jobs that they will have over their lifetime of evolving careers.  

Despite the challenges confronting the more than 4,000 universities in this country, however, each institution must justify why it believes it is a valuable resource and still capable of providing a quality education while there is so much disruption in the higher education sector. Therefore, as a model of how institutions can effectively serve as important anchors in their communities, this article provides the rationale for why University of Detroit Mercy's greatest asset for its future continues to be its strong commitment to a mission of community service that has lasted for multiple decades and across three centuries. And its vital role in the current revitalization of the city of Detroit is as important today as when the University was founded in the 19th century.

At the outset, it is important to examine the unique history of University of Detroit Mercy and the city of Detroit. University of Detroit was founded in 1877 by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), and Mercy College of Detroit was established by the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1941. Both orders' founders recognized the need to provide Catholic educational opportunities at the secondary and postsecondary levels for people of all races, ethnic groups, and faith traditions around the world, and particularly in the United States. University of Detroit and Mercy College consolidated in 1990 and became University of Detroit Mercy. Twenty-six years later, it is a dynamic force in the neighborhoods of its three campuses and in the city of Detroit.

University of Detroit Mercy's greatest asset for its future continues to be its strong commitment to a mission of community service that has lasted for multiple decades.  

In spite of tremendous pressure from alumni and friends of University of Detroit and Mercy College of Detroit, neither institution moved outside of the city 50 years ago after the 1967 Detroit riots. That courageous decision was a compelling affirmation of the two religious congregations' commitment to education in the urban community, social justice, and service. The majority of Catholic schools left the city and settled in the suburbs after 1967. Two of the three remaining Catholic high schools and one of the four remaining Catholic grammar schools in Detroit are operated by the Jesuits today, while the majority of all Catholic schools are beyond the city limits. Had that pivotal decision not been made, the neighborhoods around the campus locations would be sparse compared to the strong and densely populated neighborhoods they are today. And because the University did not waiver from its mission and core principles, it is playing a major role in the city of Detroit's revitalization, which is attracting eager students who want to obtain a degree and be actively engaged in service.

The interest and eagerness of Detroit Mercy students who want to make a positive impact on the community are inextricably tied to the University's rich and dynamic academic tradition and its commitment to a 300-year-old city. For almost half of the city's existence, the University's two founding institutions, its current three campuses, and more than 87,000 national and international alumni, through their inspirational examples of service, have contributed thoroughly to the city's academic, economic, cultural, religious, and social progress. Thus, the University is firmly committed to service-based values, community partnership development, and building solutions in a city that is poised to rebuild in earnest.

Detroit Mercy students thrive on the opportunity to positively impact Detroit and thousands of its residents each year and provide a strong connection and bond between the university and residents. The School of Dentistry, located in Corktown, one of Detroit's oldest continuous neighborhoods, has been recognized for its community-based dental health program for 75 years. Furthermore, it is one of only two Schools of Dentistry in Michigan. Mobile dental clinics, led by faculty and staffed by students, travel directly to public schools in underserved areas to provide care for children who otherwise might not have an opportunity to benefit from dental care. Additionally, students in the University's Nursing and Physician Assistant programs provide valuable health services in local medical centers and in many of Detroit's neighborhoods.

Detroit Mercy students thrive on the opportunity to positively impact Detroit and thousands of its residents each year.  

But the mission of student service extends far beyond health care. Detroit Mercy's School of Law conducts clinics for Detroit residents who are unable to afford legal counsel. The University's Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), located in the School of Architecture, works with communities to redesign plans for the future and brings faculty, students, community leaders, business owners, and residents together to collaboratively plan neighborhood decisions that are sustainable and provide a future of hope and opportunity. The efforts of the DCDC have resulted in survey work that has assisted the nearby Pilgrim and Puritan neighborhoods and helped set into motion a 10-year development plan for the district surrounding Detroit's internationally-renowned Eastern Market. In 2017, the DCDC won the American Institute of Architects' prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. Named for the civil rights leader, the honor is given to an architectural organization that "embodies social responsibility and actively addresses a relevant issue, such as affordable housing, inclusiveness or universal access."

While Detroit Mercy's commitment to community service is a critical component of the institution's mission, the University is also dedicated to aligning faculty and staff expertise to help propel Detroit's economic and societal recovery. Through the College of Business Administration, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship provides resources to help residents develop entrepreneurship ideas that positively impact the community. The Center connects faculty and students with Detroit residents to develop and present business ideas to leading funding organizations and convert those concepts into viable operations. The Center also helps develop the capacity of enterprises to make a profit and supports their aspirations to create social good within the local community. This effort has resulted in more than $50,000 in total funding for new business activity and plans to grow in future years.

But these efforts alone cannot fulfill the University's potential to serve as a positive force in the transformation of Detroit without an even greater commitment to connect with the community. That is why the University assumed a lead role in a partnership dedicated to working with residents and business owners to revive the Northwest Detroit area where the University's original campus sits, including the neighborhoods surrounding the intersection of Livernois Avenue and McNichols Road. This effort began conceptually in the summer of 2011 by the then-new and current president and in 2015 officially when the University became a primary partner in the Live6 Alliance. The University serves as a convener, facilitator, and conduit for this important initiative, which has been assisted with start-up and continuing funding largely by The Kresge Foundation, Detroit Mercy, other major foundations and local private and governmental organizations.

The University assumed a lead role in a partnership dedicated to working with residents and business owners to revive the Northwest Detroit area.  

The Live6 Alliance establishes a dedicated economic organization for the immediate area around the McNichols campus with four primary goals. The first goal is place-making, which involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of residents in these adjoining neighborhoods to determine and confirm their needs and aspirations. The second goal is neighborhood stabilization, which encompasses working with the various community organizations in the area, such as neighborhood groups and block clubs. By stabilizing and strengthening the neighborhood, the Live6 Alliance can attract more families and businesses to the area. The third goal is business attraction and retention, which are critical to maintaining a vibrant economic and quality of life corridor. Business attraction and retention will provide three immediate outcomes: economic benefits for business owners, shopping opportunities for residents, and jobs for local residents. The fourth goal is safety and security, which are essential for any strong neighborhood. Residents and campus security will work together with local law enforcement on existing safety and security efforts to make the area safe, appealing, and a destination location for visitors.

The Live6 Alliance now has four staff members and an office across the street from the campus. In addition to staff from the Live6 Alliance, the office also houses a staff member from the City Planning Department, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and the Fitzgerald Neighborhood Project, which is located west of the 90-year-old McNichols campus and a neighborhood demonstration project of the City.

In late August, nearly half of the 550 Fall 2017 freshmen were introduced to living the Jesuit and Mercy values through their immersion in a Fitzgerald neighborhood beautification project. As part of their orientation, these first-year Detroit Mercy students engaged in two days of collaborative service-learning that implicitly and explicitly conveyed the types of opportunities that they will experience during their college years and in their lives as alumni.

One way Detroit Mercy further illustrates the impact of service-learning and how efforts like the Fitzgerald experience help demonstrate to students the critical need to positively impact their community is through the awarding of the Vivere ex Missione Awards at commencement each spring. This year, Sarah Cornwell was one of the recipients of the award, which is presented annually to students who best exemplify the mission of Detroit Mercy.

"Sarah has done just about everything there is to do with Ministry over her five years here," stated Sr. Beth Ann Finster, SSJ, Assistant Director of University Ministry and the award's nominator. During her time at Detroit Mercy, Cornwell worked in the University Ministry office, served as a resident advisor, attended five Alternative Spring Break trips, worked as a photographer for the Varsity News, went on service and immersion trips both as a participant and trip leader, and spent six weeks studying abroad in El Salvador, to name just a few.

On one of Cornwell's Alternative Spring Break trips to El Salvador, she served impoverished communities in San Bartolo, located in the mountains of El Salvador. Each week, she traveled to town and worked in a health clinic. After graduation, she will begin a year of service with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange County, California, where she will live in a community with other women, focusing on spirituality, social justice, leadership, and simple community living. She will live on a meager stipend of $100 per month, similar to the earnings of the people that she will serve; and she will be employed by the Hurtt Family Health Clinic, a federally qualified health center that serves the underinsured and uninsured, where she will use her skills as a physician assistant to care for those who need help the most.

It is imperative that colleges and universities remain committed to their service-oriented and related historical missions.  

Sarah Cornwell is one example of an alumna who embodies the mission of University of Detroit Mercy; she will have a profound and immediate impact on the lives of individuals and families because of the education she received and the values she developed and internalized in college. Most alumni make similar contributions throughout their lives, and it is imperative that colleges and universities spread that message widely and remain committed to their service-oriented and related historical missions.