Complex and fragile: The university's dual role as society's servant and society's critic

December 14, 2017

It's been 200 years since the founding of Michigan's first and flagship university: ours. Every moment is a turning point. But this moment—our bicentennial—is particularly poignant.

As schools and stakeholders across the University of Michigan look to the next 200 years, the Ford School—which was built to address social challenges and has long encouraged faculty, students, and alumni to tackle them in and beyond the classroom—takes time to explore its role as servant, and critic, of society.

"On the one hand, the university has the responsibility for training and research functions that serve society's current economic and cultural life," wrote Harold T. Shapiro nearly four decades ago. "On the other hand, the university has a fundamental responsibility to be critical of society's current arrangements."

Back then, Shapiro was referring to revitalizing struggling cities, ensuring that minorities and all women received a full share of society's opportunities, and more. Today, these challenges, and many others, are just as urgent.

But there are stories of success, as well.

This fall, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced a number of new programs designed to promote and support faculty members who are engaging with some of society's most daunting problems.

President Schlissel highlighted a number of current examples, including the university's new Teach Out Series, launched by the Office of Academic Innovation under the leadership of James Devaney (MPP/MBA '05), and the university's Poverty Solutions Initiative, led by Professor Luke Shaefer of the Ford School and School of Social Work

In this issue of State & Hill, we're proud to share a few recent stories highlighting other ways our community is serving society.

Combatting anti-black prejudice in the job market.

Research has shown that employers evaluating job applicants who don't have referrals strongly favor white applicants over black ones—even when the education, skills, and experience of black and white applicants are identical. What research hasn't shown, says Assistant Professor Fabiana Silva, is how employers evaluate black and white applicants who have secured referrals.

Picture of Fabiana Silva

"This is a critical question because most job applicants find employment through someone they know," she says. To investigate, Silva assembled a sample of real-world hiring agents, measured their implicit anti-black bias, and then had them evaluate pairs of equally qualified black and white job applicants. One of these applicants had a referral from either a black or white employee; the other had none.

In the most common real-life scenarios, says Silva—in which black applicants were referred by black employees and white applicants were referred by white employees—the study found black applicants' referrals were significantly less helpful. In fact, says Silva, "Black applicants only benefitted from a referral when the referring employee was white, and they were evaluated by a less-prejudiced hiring agent."

Silva, who is now finalizing a journal article to disseminate her findings, hopes her work will bolster the body of evidence needed to combat anti-black job discrimination. "It's an acute injustice," says Silva. "One that I will continue to address in my research."

Employing social norms to promote sustainable energy use.

Imagine opening your monthly electric bill and seeing not only your energy use, but your next-door neighbor's energy use, as well.

Picture of Kaitlin Raimi

Some utility companies have already begun comparisons to encourage consumers to reduce their electricity use—to significant effect. "Research shows if consumers get information that they're doing worse than their neighbors, they will often reduce their energy to keep up with the Joneses,” Assistant Professor Kaitlin Raimi explains.

With the help of a $330,000 award from the National Science Foundation, Raimi and U-M colleagues SangHyun Lee (Engineering) and Sol Hart (Literature, Science, and the Arts) will test a new comparison group.

Instead of comparing energy use with neighbors who are geographically close, they'll group consumers based on their usage patterns—night owls, early birds, etc.—to see whether these classifications prove more effective.

For now, the team will focus on electricity consumers in Holland, MI, but if the interventions are successful, Raimi hopes the research will add yet another option for utility companies across the country.

"I say, 'I'm from the GAO and I'm here to help,' and they laugh."

Diana Maurer (MPP '90) has been with the U.S. Government Accountability Office for 27 years and now oversees a team of three-dozen staffers assigned to homeland security and justice issues.

Picture of Diana Maurer

While Maurer describes the GAO's mission as supporting American taxpayers and making sure their government is as effective and efficient as possible, she says "agency officials are never terribly happy to see us. I say, 'I'm from the GAO and I'm here to help,' and they laugh, but the GAO is about good government, and helping federal agencies do their jobs even better."

While Maurer has worked with many agencies throughout her career, her current role is to lead the GAO's oversight of federal law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Justice.

In one recent example, Maurer's team looked into how the FBI was using facial recognition technologies, and discovered it wasn't doing enough to protect the privacy of citizens, or ensure the accuracy of systems. "You want to make sure that you're catching legitimate bad guys," she says.

Fraud control recommendations estimated to save taxpayers $500 million.

Latesha Love (MPP '02), also with the GAO, has had similar experiences. As assistant director of forensic audits and investigative services, Love manages performance audits and undercover investigations for the agency. One recent assignment—one of the few she's at liberty to discuss—looked at fraudulent Medicare claims and suggested steps the Department of Health and Human Services could take to save taxpayer dollars.

Picture of Latesha Love

After reviewing the department's list of 1.9 million Medicare providers, her team found that a significant number of them didn't have real practice locations on record. Instead, they listed post office boxes, burger joints, vacant lots, and virtual offices as their places of practice. "There were old hospitals that had been demolished and hadn't been operating for years," says Love.

"Initially, the agency was not happy to know their fraud controls weren't working as intended," she says. "But they've now implemented the recommendations, and according to them it has made a huge difference."

One estimate suggests the GAO's fraud control recommendations have saved taxpayers $500 million in recent years.

Servant Critics

Automatic free tuition for in-state undergrads with demonstrated need.

For years, U-M administrators had tried to recruit more low-income students from Michigan. Unsuccessful, they theorized that students from disadvantaged backgrounds dismissed the university as too expensive or selective.

In stepped Professor Susan Dynarski, along with Postdoctoral Fellow Katherine Michelmore (Syracuse) and Ford School alumnus CJ Libassi (MPP '15). Together, they helped U-M administrators shape the HAIL Scholarship pilot program, which was designed to help students make more informed decisions about admission rates and costs.

Picture of Susan Dynarski

In the first year of the pilot, 1,057 high-achieving, low-income high school seniors across the state received an envelope from U-M. Inside, the university promised to cover four years of tuition and fees if the student was admitted.

It was a small intervention, and because the university already offered considerable aid to low-income students, it was generally cost-neutral. But the results were impressive. Application rates exploded—from 25 percent of the control group to 68 percent of those who received the offer.

The scholarship was so successful, in fact, that U-M administrators soon decided to extend a similar offer to students across the state. U-M's new Go Blue Guarantee, which has been lauded by media outlets across the country, offers automatic free tuition to all in-state students whose families make less than $65,000 per year.

Marshaling the evidence for vulnerable families and communities.

When Congressional staffers are trying to clarify and respond to public policy challenges, they call on the Congressional Research Service, where a number of Ford School alumni serve as policy specialists.

In the Domestic Social Policy Division, for example, Melinda Gish (MPP '97), Joe Dalaker (MPP '97), Kirsten (Black) Colello (MPP '00), Maggie McCarty (MPP/MSW '02), Adrienne Fernandes Alcantara (MPP '06, pictured), and Benjamin Collins (MPP '11) help Congressional staffers understand programs and policies designed to assist vulnerable families and communities.

By drawing on the experience of past legislative efforts and using rigorous qualitative and quantitative approaches, these and other Ford School alumni at the Congressional Research Service help to develop legislative proposals, analyze policy alternatives, and assess the impact, or potential impact, of policies on states and constituents across the U.S.

"I often see myself as an extension of legislative staff—regardless of the legislative agenda or the party in power," says Fernandes Alcantara. "Congress considers us a reliable source of information and analysis because we provide non-partisan, timely responses that are informed by research."

Servant Critics 2

Building a better Detroit riverfront, creating something special.

Over the summer of 2017, Larry Sanders (MPP '18) served as an assistant project manager for the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, the organization responsible for the operation and programming of the Detroit RiverWalk and its surrounding green spaces.

Photo of Larry Sanders

As the Conservancy's East Riverfront development initiatives conclude, the organization is shifting its focus to the West Riverfront, launching a design competition for a park in a 22-acre space adjacent to some of Detroit's most iconic neighborhoods.

Sanders, who served as assistant project manager for that competition, facilitated the Conservancy's community engagement program, assembling a community advisory team made up of representatives from Detroit neighborhoods. The goal: To have locals guide the design process with their input and values, leading to the creation of a world-class public space—one shaped and chosen by the communities that will use it.

Sanders traveled with the team to well-known parks in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City to get a sense of what they would like this new park to incorporate. For Sanders, a native Detroiter who continues to assist with the project, it's about giving his community the chance to create something special, and passing that on to future Detroiters.

Students amplify charitable giving through the High Five Fund.

Following the 2016 election, Sarah Magnelia (MPP '18) was interested in finding constructive ways for people upset with the outcome to maximize their involvement with progressive causes and organizations.

Photo of Sarah Magnelia

During conversations with Philadelphia and Seattle-based friends, the idea of giving circles—groups that take small donations and turn them into larger, collective donations to amplify each individual's impact—gained traction.

With this in mind, Magnelia and five co-founders began to recruit friends, colleagues and family members to join the High Five Fund, which accepts a monthly $5 donation from its members then invests these funds in "action-oriented organizations and equity-focused leaders."

Inspired by Michelle Obama's words, "When they go low, we go high," the group focuses on giving that will support progressive politics, marginalized people, public institutions, and the planet. As she explains, "The times in my life when I've been most politically active have often been when I've been around folks who were encouraging and supporting that political activism. So we wanted to create that."

Servant Critics 3

Assisting low-income families in Ypsilanti and surrounding communitities.

As president of the Collaborative Outreach Board, Alexandra Thébaud, business and grants manager at the Ford School, manages a community-based nonprofit that offers educational, economic, and cultural opportunities to improve the quality of life in Ypsilanti, MI and the city's surrounding communities.

Some ongoing programs, including a monthly food pantry and individualized job and social service referrals, address the basic needs of families in a community struggling with poverty, says Thébaud. Other programs, including service leadership opportunities for youth and annual college tours for those considering higher education, help young people develop entrepreneurial skills and explore career options. Thébaud also recruits professional volunteers to offer periodic health screenings and workshops on life insurance, family budgeting, and more.

Thébaud says she came across the Collaborative Outreach Board while working on her master's in organizational leadership at Concordia University. She'd been asked to investigate a community organization, and liked what she found. But the service orientation, she says, was inspired by her parents—a doctor and nurse in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. "I'm not trying to change the world," says Thébaud, "just trying to make a difference in someone's life."

Boosting pedal power in the Motor City with MoGo Bike Share.

In the spring of 2012, Lisa Nuszkowski (MPP '03) convened a group of business and community leaders to talk about a new phenomenon popping up in U.S. cities—bike sharing. While the group was intrigued, they had questions, starting with whether bike share could work in Detroit

Picture of Lisa Nuszkowski

Nuszkowski led a feasibility study that explored the challenges and opportunities, as well as logistics and potential business models for bike share, and determined that it could offer some real benefits to the city's residents.

After raising some start-up capital, she created MoGo Detroit Bike Share, a nonprofit affiliate of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, and secured more than $4 million from a series of stakeholders—federal and local—to put the plan in motion.

From hosting neighborhood meetings to implementing a price structure that would be accessible for all income levels, Nuszkowski says MoGo prioritized community outreach, and the principles of equity and inclusion, throughout the process.

A key aspiration, she says, is to see bike share users reflect the diversity of all those who live and work and spend time in the city.

Servant Critics 5

Paid family and medical leave--an issue whose time has come.

The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution have joined forces to work toward a bipartisan solution for paid family leave in the United States. The Ford School's Betsey Stevenson is a member of the ideologically diverse working group.

Picture of Betsey Stevenson

"Paid family and medical leave: An issue whose time has come," the working group's report, examines the costs and benefits of providing paid family leave, assesses various proposals, and recommends a compromise plan for policymakers to consider. The compromise plan would provide eight weeks of gender-neutral, jobprotected paid parental leave at 70 percent of pay, and would be funded by a combination of payroll taxes and savings elsewhere in the budget to ensure both no increase in the deficit and no adverse effects for low-income families. The working group is continuing to meet to model costs and fully flesh out a legislative proposal.

Most of the world's countries, and all of the world's wealthy countries, have national paid maternity and paternity leave policies, says Stevenson, who served as a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (2014-16) and as chief economist in the U.S. Department of Labor (2010-11). Based on the experience of other wealthy nations, Stevenson believes a national family leave policy will help keep U.S. women connected to the labor force and will invest in the successful development of children—both of which, she says, will ultimately lead to more sustained economic growth as well as greater wellbeing for families.

When natural disasters struck, students offered relief.

Picture of Luz Meza

The fall of 2017 has been a season marked by a series of major natural disasters. On September 9 and 19, major earthquakes struck southern and central Mexico, respectively, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. And on September 20, Hurricane Maria—the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record—made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Knowing that these disasters affected family and friends back home for many Mexican, Mexican-American, and Puerto Rican students at the Ford School, Luz Meza (MPP/MAE '18) organized an effort to provide relief.

Meza and her friends decided the best way to do this was to share their culture—selling tamales and pan dulce to students, staff, and faculty. Their efforts, which raised spirits across the school and $1,500 for charity, will benefit Defend Puerto Rico, Fundación Comunitaria Oaxaca, and YoXMexico.

Servant Critics 6

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2017 State & Hill.