Look upward, Detroit

Guest column published in Crain's Detroit Business June 20, 2023

Detroit's skyline is a little greener.

Last week, Michigan State University demonstrated anew its faith in Detroit through our investment in the iconic Fisher Building. The occasion was marked by illuminating the top of the landmark in Spartan green, signaling our continuing engagement in Detroit's storied legacy of innovation and resilience.

MSU's local connection predates our 1855 founding, when Detroit geologist, whiz kid and community leader Bela Hubbard joined those advocating for a new-model college and experimental farm to uplift the young state of Michigan. Over time, our associations grew, with MSU's first local Extension agent appointed in 1917 and the former Detroit College of Law — now MSU College of Law — first affiliating with the university in 1995.

Through generations, MSU has worked hand-in-hand with Detroiters to support local schools, community agriculture and nutrition, manufacturing and innovation, the environment, economic development, the arts, medicine and more.

Consider, for example, MSU's 2009 decision to establish a College of Osteopathic Medicine campus in the heart of the city in the Detroit Medical Center complex. Today, that program is preparing more than 120 new Spartan physicians and nurses who will join a network of more than 1,350 health care alums from the college's DMC site to care for our families and friends.

Consider, too, the city's financial distress and bankruptcy filing 10 years ago, when Spartans again looked for ways to partner with the community, not with unsolicited advice but by starting with a question: "How can we help?"

Spartans then stepped into action to aid in the recovery. Our world-class faculty and staff worked on food security assistance, local economic development projects, innovative ideas around city planning, and educating Detroiters and the state about the potential implications of bankruptcy on their lives.

So, what are we doing today?

First, we are listening. I have personally talked with high school principals and community leaders and builders. I've talked to faith leaders and government workers. I've heard from folks in the arts and folks building roads. We are listening and we are partnering.

In 2021, we partnered with Apple and Rock Ventures to establish North America's only Apple Developer Academy in the heart of the city to help develop the next generation of app developers and entrepreneurs who can contribute to the city's growing economy. Two years ago, we graduated zero people; last year we graduated 100 Detroiters and this week we will graduate 200 MSU-Apple Academy coders — all from Detroit, all ready to change their neighborhoods one app at a time.

Earlier this year we expanded our partnership with Henry Ford Health, and we partnered with the Detroit Pistons to strengthen the New Center neighborhood and make the city and state a national leader in providing exceptional health care for all and growing our cancer research while addressing health disparities. Indeed, a joint research center in Detroit is being planned as part of that collaboration, adding even more green to the Detroit skyline.

The results of such engagement? MSU's Motor City presence yields a $317 million economic impact on the region and has empowered Detroiters through educational opportunities including enrolling nearly 1,000 students today and graduating over 4,300 alums.

The university is a key talent asset for employers in Detroit and around the state. General Motors and Ford Motor Company are both top-five employers of recent graduates and, among those graduating from MSU with engineering degrees, 58% chose to begin their careers within Michigan's innovation ecosystem.

Behind all these numbers are the stories of Detroiters who embody the city's motto of "We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes" — a motto that MSU has helped enable through its commitment to democratizing higher education and making a better tomorrow for all.

One of these stories belongs to a former Detroit high school student. This first-generation college student, from a historically underserved family, came to MSU through our summer agricultural program nearly four years ago. Although she thought she wanted to go into design, this Spartan left her summer experience with a passion for helping others through sustainable parks, recreation and tourism. She is now a rising senior who is ready to finish her program and make a difference in her community, enhancing the quality of life of her fellow Detroiters through the knowledge she has gained at MSU.

That's transformation. That's what MSU can do when we listen and work together.

So, what's next for MSU in Detroit? My answer to those I've talked with is simple: MSU will continue to build on our legacy as a beacon of opportunity and transformation for Detroiters and as a partner in the community's continued growth and success. We are in the community. We are listening. We are doing what you asked. In partnership. For you. And for the future.

As Detroiters look to the night skyline and peer up to the splash of green at the apex of the Fisher Building, let it serve as a beacon signifying MSU's part in Detroit's continued rise.

Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., is the interim president of Michigan State University and an MSU Research Foundation Professor.