Crossing borders

September 15, 2009

Applied Policy Seminar Evolves With Student Interests

In the shadow of the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge, Mexicantown's authentic restaurants and bakeries delight tourists and locals. Every year, millions of Midwesterners drive through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and head to the Caesars Windsor casino for gambling and entertainment. But the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel are more than landmarks for the two communities. They represent the busiest international border crossing in North America.

According to a recent Brookings Institution report, the Ambassador Bridge, which is privately owned and operated by the Detroit International Bridge Company, "carries more trade between the United States and Canada each year than flows between the United States and all of Europe and Japan combined." Billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on the infrastructure that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It's a major border crossing between two powerful nations, and as a result, has important implications for many policy issues such as trade, immigration, and national security.


crossing borders

Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge

As the Ford School's field of vision has expanded over time, so too have the interests of the students. Some students still envision their careers following either a domestic track or an international one, but increasingly, faculty find that students recognize the need to explore policy issues through a more integrated lens. These factors make the Detroit-Windsor border crossings an ideal focus of study for today's Ford School students. The border invites consideration of a wide range of both domestic and international policy issues. For example, it very naturally places issues of local economic development in a global policy perspective, and frames international security issues within a regional context.

These opportunities in part led Professor Liz Gerber to select the Detroit-Windsor border crossing as the topic for the Applied Policy Seminar she taught in the Winter 2009 term. Gerber, herself a political scientist with expertise in domestic issues such as land use, transportation, and economic development policy, was attracted by the wide range of issues that can be viewed through the lens of the border crossing.

Gerber secured the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce as the project's client and collaborated with Ford School alum and instructor, Steve Tobocman (MPP '97), to develop the basic framework for the course. Given the client's broad interests in border crossing issues, the Chamber was happy to allow the students a great deal of discretion is choosing the specific focus of the project.

So when the class convened at the beginning of the Winter semester, students were given the initial task of defining the scope of the project and deciding which particular issues would be part of the project's focus. The students chose a structure that would let them learn about local economic development and workforce issues, as well as a number of policy areas traditionally labeled as international, such as national security, immigration, and international trade. When Gerber contacted the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce to discuss the proposed project scope, the clients "were initially most interested in trade and local development, they were less interested in other global issues such as security or immigration," she notes, "but they were not resistant to the idea of broadening the focus."


Liz Gerber

The resulting project, "U.S. Border Crossing Analysis: A Case for Detroit-Windsor," was divided into two parts. The first phase involved data collection on all major border crossings in both the north and south of the U.S., including indicators such as trade, infrastructure, traffic volume, security measures, employment and immigration, and the characteristics of local communities. The second phase into groups that worked on case studies of the five largest U.S. border crossings: Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Niagara,San Diego-Tijuana, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, and El Paso-Juarez. Student Suzanne Gill (Bromage Intern, MPP '09) explains, "The ultimate goal of this project was to highlight the unique qualities and characteristics of Detroit, as well as to make recommendations on what could be improved based on the study of other border crossing cities' best practices."

The students presented their findings to a diverse group of stakeholders from Detroit and Windsor. "We gave some practical recommendations based on our case studies," Gill said. "For instance, we studied the Buffalo-Niagara region where there is a bridge used solely by Nexus cardholders. The Nexus pass is a preauthorized custom card that makes cross-border commuting easier and reduces traffic congestion. This type of initiative is unique along the U.S.-Canadian border and could be replicated in Detroit."

The opportunity to gain public sector consulting experience has made the Applied Policy Seminar, now called Strategic Public Policy Consulting or SPPC, a popular elective for a number of years. Past clients have included county governments, school districts, and city administrators. The complexity and methodology of each project is established collaboratively by the client, the students, and the faculty director. Students conduct research, analyze data, review best practices, meet with stakeholders, interview actors, produce briefs and reports, and present their results to clients.

Jeff S. Barnes (MPP '09), who took this year's course, highlights the importance of the practical, consulting dimension to him. "I did not have any consulting experience, so that's what drove me to this class. The ability to work with local actors was a great opportunity for me, and I also learned a great deal about the Detroit metropolitan area." The instructor's role, Gerber explains, is to "help with the design and the management of the project, and act as an interface between the local clients and the students."

Gerber has taught the Applied Policy Seminar, now called Strategic Public Policy Consulting or SPPC, several times, always with a domestic focus. She thinks that the broad scope of this year's course was a positive development, and credits the changing nature of the MPP students who come to the school. "There was definitely even more interest in international issues than I had thought," Gerber notes, "More and more students want an education that integrates domestic and international policy." Barnes is just such a student. He says, "I had taken many courses focused on international security and I thought that it would be an interesting opportunity to approach this issue from a local standpoint." When asked about the next iteration of the course, Gerber says she's already looking for more clients like the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, clients who see the value of an integrated approach to public policy. "I hope we can continue to find opportunities to satisfy the broad range of interests our students bring with them to the Ford School, while at the same time having a positive impact on our local communities."

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View entire Fall 2009 State & Hill here.

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