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In only a few months, the University of Michigan will begin a yearlong celebration of its bicentennial, honoring 200 years as one of the world’s premier public universities. Indeed, planning and coordination efforts have been underway for at least two years through the UM’s Office of the Bicentennial. The College of LSA, Semester in Detroit’s home, is preparing to honor our 200th birthday in many ways including theme semesters in the winter and fall of next year. SID plans to contribute by organizing two community conversations next year here in Detroit that will explore our many histories of partnership with the City, and build best practices for future collaborations.
Two hundred years certainly provides ample history for our institution to explore, interrogate, and uplift; and even with a full year of activities being planned, we certainly can’t cover everything. But here’s a fundamental question and curiosity for SID throughout all of these planning efforts: how will the foundational and perennial relationship between the City of Detroit and the U-M factor into our many bicentennial events, activities and celebrations?
U-M’s relationship to the City of Detroit should not be reduced to the first two decades after our institution’s birth in 1817 when the University of Michigania was established downtown at Congress and Bates Streets. Our University’s historians, in telling our 200-year story, must agree that the city of Detroit’s meteoric rise to international prominence in the first half of the 20th century (4th largest American city between 1920-1950) was instrumental to our institution’s own tremendous growth and success during this same period. And, perhaps, Detroit’s and U-M’s growth in this period were interdependent phenomenon – and that neither would have been fully realized without the other. (Though, as we are often accused of, this probably gives U-M too much credit!)
What is indisputable are the millions of miles that have accumulated on our collective odometers over the decades moving back-and-forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor (though perhaps fewer miles and carbon since 2012 thanks to the U-M’s continued support for the Detroit Connector Bus). What percentage of U-M’s massive alumni community (their parents/grandparents?) was born and/or grew up in the city of Detroit? What percentage of our faculty and staff? Our donors? Patients? Doctors? Finally, what might such data tell us about our institution’s interdependence with the city of Detroit?
All history aside, perhaps the most important question U-M should ask itself during the bicentennial year looks forward: why should we STILL consider Detroit to be so important today as we build the future of our institution? Here in Semester in Detroit we have at least one solid answer to this question: because Detroit isn’t only a placewhere we should be looking for more of tomorrow’s students; it’s a place where we can already find more of today’s teachers. This is one principle that SID intends to embrace during and long beyond the bicentennial year.