When I left Ann Arbor in the summer of 2004, I harbored thoughts of one day returning to the University of Michigan. After all, the university had been my home for fifteen years. During my fourteen-year absence, I served as provost at Emory University for nearly nine years and as president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for five, which many assumed destined me to claim another senior administrative position. This makes perfect sense given a twenty-year career as dean (at Michigan), as well as provost and president. But I returned to take on another role: the creation and development of the Center for Social Solutions (CSS).

The Center for Social Solutions proposes to tackle four critical problems over the course of the next decade—how to leverage and value diversity for the benefit of a prosperous democracy, how to confront slavery and its continuing hold on America and its social relations, how to move water from flood prone regions to drought stricken areas, and how to secure the dignity of labor in an automated world.

So much of contemporary society focuses on the identification of the “right” problems. When we turn to solving those problems we often take a disciplinary (e.g., political, psychological, economic, historical, sociological, etc.) or cluster approach (i.e., sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, or arts). While interdisciplinary teams do exist and work together, bringing scholars from across the campus together with potential partners from beyond the university and the academy is rarer.

For the next decade, the center will do just that: assemble different teams of scholars (local, national, and international), students, policy analysts, arts producers, media experts, philanthropic investors, social activists, former politicians, and others to address four real problems in real time with the idea of arriving at measurable solutions. While we start with a national perspective, we hope and trust that what we learn may be useful and shareable as we confront these problems in the broader world.

The scope, duration, approaches, and design of each project will vary. For example, the diversity project, called “Our Compelling Interests,” involves public events and the production of books published in partnership with Princeton University Press on various aspects of diversity and democracy. Three titles have been published to date.

Last year McKinsey predicted the disappearance of 800 million jobs worldwide by 2030 due to automation. Of that number 54 million will be lost in the United States, one-third of the contemporary workforce. While new jobs will appear, the social transformation suggested by this structural realignment has profound implications for all our institutions. Many researchers are working on this change, albeit in relative isolation. The “Dignity of Labor in an Automated World” initiative will create an authoritative database that maps current projects focused on the future of work. Knowing what is underway is the first step in developing an integrated set of solutions.

“Slavery and Its Aftermath” combines my role as president of the Organization of American Historians and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in colonial Jamestown to launch a set of projects on slavery’s continuing hold on the American present. These will bring together academics, public media, museums, social activists, and performing arts organizations to coordinate and distribute programming for societal benefit.

Finally, while we start with a simple question about water—how to move it and share it equitably—we understand that social, fiscal, and regulatory practices and policies may prove a greater challenge than engineering scientific and technical solutions.

These projects all proceed from our belief that problems must be studied with the aim of developing workable solutions.