University Role with Detroit Center for Innovation Questioned

Participants in the University of Michigan’s Detroit programs have raised concerns about the school’s involvement with establishing the Center for Innovation, a 14-acre, $300 million facility.

by Martin Slagter, MLive.com / November 25, 2019

(TNS) — Participants in one of the University of Michigan’s Detroit programs have called into question the university’s involvement in the establishment of a new Detroit Center for Innovation.

The group called on UM to contemplate what October’s announcement of the new 14-acre, $300 million Detroit Center for Innovation signifies for the university’s priorities and its many long-term relationships in the city.

During Semester in Detroit, students spend an undergrad semester living in Detroit while interning and learning about life and challenges the city faces.

The group called on the university to address some of its key concerns about the investment and its underlying commitment to the people in Detroit, asserting that the investment stands in sharp contrast to the mission, principles and practices of the Semester in Detroit program.

“We have deep concerns about this project, and we question in whose interests it was conceived,” reads the letter, which was co-authored by Semester in Detroit faculty leads Craig Regester, Stephen Ward and Marion Van Dam.

“With the proposed “Detroit Center for Innovation”, is UM co-opting this work to promote a project devised by private, profit-seeking investors that will by-pass the residents of Detroit and communities they live in, thereby perpetuating the historically fraught and problematic record of the University of Michigan in the city?” the letter asks UM executives.

Among the group’s concerns were that the deal was made at the site of what once was expected to become the new Wayne County Jail in downtown Detroit. Given the city’s history, the group expressed concerns for “conflicts created by capitalism’s dependency on racial and economic oppression and inequity.”

“Given this history, and considering the private interests involved in this partnership, we believe the “Detroit Center for Innovation” is an inappropriate and irresponsible deployment of the University’s social, economic and intellectual capital," the letter states.

The university is aware of the concerns of Semester in Detroit, but believes the project has been received positively thus far, UM Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. But there remains much work to be done before construction will begin, he said.

Much of that outreach within the city of Detroit will take place by the Office of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others, Fitzgerald said.

“I know that with many projects in Detroit, and with this one in particular, the mayor and the developers will be detailing the “community benefit” for this project as part of the regular project review process in the city,” Fitzgerald said. “We do believe that there is an enormous community benefit to having up to 1,000 graduate students learning and doing on this site that once was to become the site of the Wayne County Jail.”

The new UM facility will eventually serve up to 1,000 graduate and senior-level undergraduate students, providing educational for opportunities in automotive mobility, artificial intelligence, sustainability, cybersecurity and financial technology.

UM noted development of the academic building would be made possible by a major gift from UM alum and billionaire mega donor Stephen Ross, a Detroit native, and leadership gifts from Detroit entrepreneur Dan Gilbert and other public and private sources.

With additional plans to build mid-rise residential buildings for UM graduate students, incubator space for new tech businesses and a boutique hotel and conference center at the former “fail jail” site, Semester in Detroit asked university leaders if alleged abuse of federal tax benefits by Gilbert created any concern that the project was attempting to manipulate UM as a public institution to benefit private interests at the expense of the general public?

“Through this partnership, could UM be enabling tax avoidance and the inappropriate use of federal ‘opportunity zones’?” the group asked UM.

The group also asked the university how it would proactively and strategically prevent dislocation and prioritize genuine community benefits for long-time Detroit residents.

“Broadly speaking, will UM recognize the voices, concerns, and visions of local residents, such as the concrete proposals recently put forward by east side communities? Or, will UM be complicit in the dangerous practice of the wealthy and powerful alone determining the direction of development?”

Members from Semester in Detroit and others in the university community with connections to Detroit have been critical of UM’s investment decisions in the city in recent months. In July, a number of them criticized for a $30 million private equity firm investment linked to evictions in Detroit.

Additionally, students have created a petition opposed to the Detroit Center for Innovation, calling the project “antithetical to the University’s stated values of equity, empowerment, and community-centered public engagement.”

Overall, Fitzgerald said UM researchers, students, staff, alumni and partners are actively engaged with roughly 300 ongoing programs and initiatives in the city and surrounding area, from the “cradle to career” P-20 collaboration with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at Marygrove College and Project Healthy Schools in Detroit middle schools to the Wolverine Pathways college-readiness program and the nearby UM-Dearborn campus.

“This new Detroit Center for Innovation enhances that legacy by meeting another pressing need - helping to further the economic development of the city and the region,” Fitzgerald said.

©2019 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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