An opportunity for impact: Applied Policy Seminar engages students with the challenges facing Detroit

May 20, 2009

Josh Brammer (MPP '09)

DETROIT – Forbes magazine may have branded Detroit "America's most miserable city" in 2008, but the city has its share of strengths as well as problems.

An increasing number of healthcare and film industry jobs have come to the area in recent years, and the TechTown technology park has spurred the development of high tech research in the city. The cost of living is also one of the lowest in the nation among major metropolitan areas.

"People don't realize what's going on here. How can that change?" asked Suzanne Gill, a second-year master of public policy (MPP) student at the Ford School.

Gill was one of 45 students, staff, and Ford School faculty who spent the day in the city in early February to learn about Detroit's problems and opportunities firsthand. Professor Liz Gerber organized the excursion – which included both a bus tour of economic development sites and a Q&A session with local community leaders – as part of her winter Applied Policy Seminar, now called Strategic Public Policy Consulting or SPPC.


The tour portion of the event, enthusiastically narrated by local tour guide Mark Denson of "DTOURS," showcased a variety of up-and-coming businesses and neighborhoods, including the Park Plaza RiverWalk development, TechTown, and Mexicantown, where the new Ambassador Bridge Gateway Project is only a few months from completion. Denson said he wants more young professionals to move to Detroit.

Gerber said she organized the afternoon Q&A session in order to provide more perspective.

"I have seen some of the real struggles that Detroit is going through, and the tour emphasized the positives," Gerber said. "That's not a bad thing necessarily, but on its own the event would have been incomplete."

Despite Denson's relentlessly upbeat perspective, the city itself added some balance to the tour. Abandoned buildings were a common sight. Across the street from Brush Park – one of Detroit's most promising examples of new residential development – every other house seemed to be boarded up and overgrown with weeds.

"Why aren't the vacant property laws enforced?" asked Professor Brian Jacob during the Q&A session, which was moderated by Christianne Sims from Detroit Fusion, Glenn Lapin of Detroit Renaissance, and architect Sharon Madison Polk. The discussion covered everything from public transit to racial politics.

Both a lack of political will and landlord absenteeism contribute to the vacant property problem, Madison Polk said. Several students said they were surprised to learn how pervasive the problem is.

"A handful of families own something like 70% of the vacant buildings and refuse to do anything with them," said second-year MPP student Will Rich. "They all expect the city to rebound, in which case they will be sitting on a gold mine—but they don't care that the rebound won't happen unless their buildings can be wisely developed."

Academic engagement with local economic issues

About half the students who went on the trip are currently enrolled in Gerber's Applied Policy Seminar course at the Ford School. The class is examining the Ambassador Bridge international border crossing for the Detroit Regional Chamber, which intends to make the crossing a key element of a regional economic development strategy. Gerber first came up with the idea for the Detroit trip while thinking about how to give her students some context for the border crossing project.

"I wanted to have a tour—actually to just get students downtown to see what was happening," explained Gerber. "I made a choice to focus not strictly on the border but more generally on economic development and other issues in the city. I thought that a broader perspective would be more useful to my students as well as other Ford School community members."

Rich described the border crossing project as a cross between economic development and cost-effectiveness consulting work. "My role is examining federal government policies and looking for the right balance between trade promotion and homeland security, and also to think about federal policies that can give the Ambassador Bridge a competitive advantage versus other crossing points," he said. "We're looking for ways that we can make the bridge more efficient, but we're also comparing data to other similar and dissimilar crossing points to see what can be improved."

This and other Applied Policy Seminars afford MPP students a rare chance to dive directly into local issues. In a two-year MPP program, time is short. Students are constantly busy, whether they're finding internships, writing papers, or volunteering their time to lead student organizations. These competing demands make Applied Policy Seminars especially important for the success of local community involvement at the Ford School—without an academic vehicle for students to study local issues, it would be much harder for students to find time to get involved.

"My students can apply their skills and knowledge and at the same time provide a lot of value to entities in Detroit," said Gerber. "This allows our students to go into substantive policy issues further than they normally could with paid consulting work."

Academic involvement in local affairs is especially valuable, Gerber said. "A lot of the community building that the Ford School does is social activities, but I think it's really important that we also have academic community-building activities."

Retaining the best and brightest

Detroit will continue to offer numerous opportunities for policy work in the years to come. Many of the city's problems, including its high vacancy rates, stem from the sharp population contraction that the city began to suffer in the 1960s. At its peak in 1950, the city's population was the fourth largest in America at nearly 2 million people, but it has steadily shrunk since then to an estimated 900,000 today. The result is an unsolved policy conundrum: How can a huge urban center gracefully shrink? And what should be done with the extra infrastructure that once supported a population twice its current size?

One solution would be to encourage people and businesses to move back, said Sims, of Detroit Fusion. Her organization provides a variety of innovative networking services that both attract new professionals to the city and help convince existing professionals to stay. Fusion recently organized an event called "ABC," short for "A Breakfast with CEOs." The breakfast provided a comfortable environment that brought together young workers with major company CEOs in a 10:1 ratio. Sims said the inaugural ABC was fully booked and wildly popular.

"If a young professional is engaged in their area, they are three times more likely to stay," Sims said.

And if Detroit needs innovative organizations such as Fusion to revitalize itself, then the University of Michigan has a role to play as well. "Brain drain" is what happens when students enroll at the university, earn their degree, and leave the area. Certainly a big part of the problem is a perceived lack of opportunity. A study released by Michigan Future found that 54 percent of recent graduates from Michigan public universities have moved out of the state.

"The university and the policy school in particular have an immediate role to play – helping our students learn about opportunities in the region that might induce them to stay," said Gerber.

Both the tour and the panel at the Detroit Center emphasized that Detroit is a place where opportunities for leadership abound. Sims said that students can get started by figuring out where their interests lie. "Whether you want to get involved from an economic development standpoint or in community service initiatives & if we can't fill the needs of particular students who come to us, we can point them in the direction of someone who can. You can be a big fish in a small pond."

Madison Polk agreed. "In New York, you need a lot of money to make a difference. Here you don't – you can do a lot."

While the Q&A panel at the Detroit Center was wrapping up, one of the panelists asked how many people's perceptions of the city had improved. Many hands shot up. Then the follow-up question: How many people's perceptions had worsened? Not a single hand appeared.

Dean Susan Collins said she was thrilled with the way the day went, especially by the turnout and the level of engagement in the questions.

"I'm a city person; I love cities," Collins said. "The Ford School has had strong connections in Detroit for years, thanks mostly to alumni who have gone on to serve the city in government and economic development organizations. My sense is we opened yet another door with this visit, and hopefully all sorts of creative, thoughtful things will come of it."