Harvard leadership project comes to Detroit

Carol Goss_fmt(pictured: Carol Goss)  Detroit has become a critical focus for urban revitalization and social innovation, and the world is taking notice of what is happening in the city whether you agree with how things are moving forward or not. The bottom line is that a city once considered “not good for business,” and the last place for real innovation is now being viewed as an embodiment or study of innovation and social enterprise at work.
Also we are witnessing a gradual transformation of the city’s image before a different kind of national audience. Not the usual culpable national media that jets in and jets out, but rather leaders of industry from around the world who are coming next week to see for themselves firsthand the work that is taking place in the city.
These leaders are the 2014 fellows of Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, which was created to “build knowledge about societal challenges requiring interdisciplinary leadership skills and to capitalize on demographic changes that create opportunities to educate and deploy accomplished leaders at later life stages in public service.”
From Dec. 4-6, about 40 fellows, made up of highly accomplished men and women, will cap their one year fellowship at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative with a visit to Detroit where they will tour the city and meet with various business and civic leaders as well as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
Detroit’s own Carol Goss, former CEO of The Skillman Foundation, is among this year’s fellows. She noted, “As fellows we have taken various leadership-based classes and seminars and have also undertaken individual social justice projects that will affect communities throughout the world.”
Some of the other fellows include Gillian Sorensen, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and former senior advisor to the UN Foundation; Alberto Mora, general counsel of Mars Inc., and former general counsel, Department of the Navy; Bruce Cohen, former chief counsel of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee; Jeffrey T. Gilling, former chairman of Diamond Antenna and Microwave Corporation; Luis Rodriguez-Ovejero, founder and CEO of Grupo Satec, a Spanish IT systems integrator in Spain; and Elizabeth Bruce, former executive vice president of Cablevision’s Madison Square Garden Division, among others.
On Friday, Dec. 5, from 10:30 am to 12 noon, the Advanced Leadership Initiative will host a forum at the University of Michigan Detroit Center that focuses on UM and its relationship to Detroit. The panel of UM faculty will consist of Scott DeRue associate dean, Ross School of Business; Elizabeth Moje, associate dean, School of Education; and Michael Spencer, associate dean, School of Social Work.
I accepted the invitation to serve as moderator of this forum. I expect the conversation next week to identify specifically what is being done to address some of the concerns raised in Judith Rodin’s book, “The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets.”
Rodin, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, is widely praised for tearing down the Berlin Wall that once existed between the university she led and the neighborhoods.
She gave the university an identity when she courageously launched the West Philadelphia Initiatives to reclaim and transform surrounding neighborhoods around the university. She did so and yet it did not water down the academic excellence and standards of the university.
The work that Rodin, who is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation, did in refusing to insulate the university and herself from the challenges of poverty and crime in the community and instead confronting them by leveraging the resources of the university, has made her a standard bearer in the country.
The lead of Rodin should be followed by any university or college that cares about making a serious impact on urban revitalization, and applying the very theories it teaches in the university to the streets. Not confining them to the ivory tower.
The role of universities in the economic rebuilding urban centers has never been more significant than now, and especially in a place like Detroit, which is the largest urban center in the state. No university in our region should brag about an urban mission if it fails to show positive substantive and strategic involvement and tangible results with projects related to Detroit.
Connecting with Detroit goes beyond dropping students in the city for a two-hour visit or sightseeing like tourists. It means engaging Detroit through multiple result-oriented projects that at the core help to provide answers to some of the most basic and fundamental questions around social equity and innovation.
Distressed neighborhoods in Detroit need the support of our universities, not a tourist visit. They need our universities to help provide some form of an economic capacity for them to grow.
You can’t claim to have an urban mission as a mantra if you can’t identify ways in which to help neighborhoods that are physically declining rebuild.
Universities cannot just dangle a community relations department as the answer to urban resurgence. That would amount to bringing a spin doctor to address a deeply inherent problem.
The key to urban revitalization lies in having a strong presence in the community and working to creatively provide a center of life and advancement. Detroit’s neighborhoods are expecting the ivory towers to come out to the streets.
That is why it is refreshing to see that in an increasing globalized world, there are leaders who have chosen to be involved in projects that address what the Harvard leadership program itself identifies as “Systemic problems, such as poverty, global health, environmental degradation, and basic education (that) also have political and technical dimensions that cannot be solved by a simple one-off approach.”
A 2010 report, “A New Paradigm for Economic Development,” produced by the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York (SUNY), listed four areas where universities can be effective in economic development:
1. Innovation.
2. Knowledge transfer.
3. An activist role in revitalizing the communities.
4. Core mission of producing the educated populace that is needed to build, run and work in the innovation economy.
These four areas represent the challenge universities face today in seeking relevance. Terry Eagleton, the British literary critic and theorist could not have said it better when he described the role of the university in this way:
“What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centers of critique.The role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.”

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