Could a Private University Have Made a Difference in Detroit?

Pittsburgh has Carnegie Mellon. In Cleveland, there's Case Western Reserve. What if there had been, say, a Henry Ford University in Detroit?

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Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Detroit's bankruptcy filing last week and the decades of decline that preceded it have been a predictable political and historical Rorschach test. The right blames the city's demise on moral failures and weak character -- the banana-republic-caliber corruption and fiscal fecklessness of its politicians, the greed of its unions, the spinelessness of automobile executives who gave into them. To the left -- more inclined to see history as the product of "great forces" than "great men" (or terrible ones) -- the Motor City was swamped by powerful tides: racism, sprawl, and unbridled capitalism.

But what was distinctive about Detroit? Other cities struggled mightily to adapt to the decline of manufacturing. But only Detroit struggled mortally - at least in terms of municipal cash flow. Why do Detroit's troubles so vastly exceed not only those of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, but Baltimore, Providence, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Rochester?

Here's a possible part of the answer, in the form of question. What exists in each of those cities, but can't be found in Detroit? One answer: a large, and usually quite wealthy, private research university. Where is Detroit's Johns Hopkins? Or, to limit the comparison to neighboring Rust Belt states, where is its Carnegie-Mellon, or Case Western Reserve? Why is there no, say, Henry Ford University in Detroit? And if there had been one, would it have made a difference?

First, why focus the question on private universities? Of course, public universities matter to cities, and had the University of Michigan not decamped from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1837, the region's entire history might well be different (better or worse is hard to say). But that move was part of a bigger pattern. As University of Kentucky historian of higher education John Thelin notes, most leading public universities were established in what were, at least at the time, rural areas. Cheaper land, the domination of state legislatures by rural interests, the initial agricultural focus of many such institutions, and anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant nativism all pushed public campuses out into the country. That left private (including Catholic) institutions positioned for a greater impact in urban areas.

In the United States, private universities occupy a disproportionate share of the very top tier in wealth and prestige -- places that operate in education, research and health care on a scale that could substantially affect the economy of a city as large as Detroit. Yes, Detroit has public Wayne State and a smattering of mostly small and often Catholic private colleges. But while Wayne State does important work, and even a fair amount of research, its operating budget is $576 million. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon and the quasi-private University of Pittsburgh are about $3 billion combined, in a city less than half Detroit's size.

Wayne State University doesn't do for Detroit what Duke University does for Durham. (Wayne State University)

Private non-profit institutions enroll fewer than 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates, but they account for 27 of the 60 U.S. members of the Association of American Universities, the leading group of elite research institutions, whose members employ on average 11,400 people each. In 1950, about the time Detroit's population began falling, private institutions were 18 of the 32 AAU members.

Today, the top 20 universities in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings are all private institutions, as are 15 of the 20 largest university endowments. That dominance is regretted by many, but it's no coincidence. Top private institutions are more varied in their missions, and more malleable and flexible to respond to new opportunities and change direction. The best of them are more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. Those and other reasons have simply made them, historically, more appealing places for very rich people to give enormous amounts of money (and unlike any public university I know of, at a certain price they'll even name the place after you).

Of course, Detroit isn't the only major American city without a prominent private research university (Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Diego are all vibrant -- though the last two have large public research institutions). But it is arguably the most surprising. Detroit was once America's fourth-largest city, and not lacking in rich philanthropists. More to the point, a century ago, it was the Silicon Valley of its day, bustling with engineering talent, entrepreneurs, and venture capital. Imagine visiting Detroit in 1920 then journeying to the farmland of Palo Alto, CA, and finally the tobacco warehouses of Durham, NC. Which place would you have bet on to become a global research and education powerhouse? Yet among those three, only Detroit failed to do so. Frederick Rudolph's still-landmark history of American higher education, The American College & University was published in 1962, when Detroit still had over 1.5 million people. The city's name does not appear in this book, nor in Thelin's 2004 successor volume A History of American Higher Education.

I can't articulate a single, overarching theory for why this is so, but I can offer two ideas. The first involves a series of contingencies dating to the early 19th century, whose effect was to lessen the chance of such an institution being in place to later grow and thrive in Detroit. The second dates to Detroit's golden days in the early 20th century, and the economic culture from which its wealth emerged.

The first theory addresses why there has been a relatively weak private college and university tradition across Michigan. The contrast with its neighbor to the south is revealing. The early 19th-century was a golden age of college-founding, and nowhere more so than in Ohio. In Rudolph's description, Ohio at this time was engaged in a kind of Weberian Olympics, with a melting pot of mostly Protestant sects competing to demonstrate their generosity and prosperity and, by extension, state of grace. The busiest included the Episcopalians (Kenyon), Baptists (Denison), Congregationalists (Oberlin and Western Reserve) and Methodists (Ohio Wesleyan, Mount Union and others). But the Catholics, Lutherans, United Bretheren and even Swedenborgians (Urbana) also got in on the action.

While Ohio's private colleges and universities were in algae-like bloom, Michigan was still practically the frontier. The state was home to just a few thousand residents, mostly in Detroit. A comically Gallophobic 1891 book History of Higher Education in Michigan blames the state's halting progress toward education in the years before statehood on troglodyte and annoyingly procreative French farmers. In author Andrew McLaughlin's telling, at least, these left-behind settlers were incapable of appreciating democracy, commerce or basic - let alone higher - learning. Alas, little could be done except wait for a critical mass of industrious New England Puritan descendants to arrive from the east and impose their will.

By then, public higher education in its modern sense was emerging. Two elements of the University of Michigan's move to Ann Arbor and opening in 1837 proved critical for Detroit. The first was not just that the university left Detroit but that it didn't go far -- just 35 miles. Second, the university became one of the best public universities in the world. In a recent ranking it was the only public institution in the top eight, and second in total research spending only to Hopkins.

The combined effect of these two factors was a university in Ann Arbor casting its shadow over Detroit, lessening the chance a rival would flourish there. The current University of Michigan is in some ways the private powerhouse Detroit never had. The university does take its public mission seriously, and helps Detroit in many ways: It maintains a center in the city, has a semester-long program for students there, and helps quietly behind the scenes where it can (for instance, deploying grant writers to help the beleaguered city government of Detroit apply for funds from federal grant programs that might otherwise go uncollected). It also tries hard to recruit students who somehow make it through the city's embattled schools. But in practice, Michigan is a private university in all but name, the state's share of its general fund budget down below 17 percent. In its global ambitions, cost and dearth of low-income students, Michigan has more in common with Harvard or Hopkins than with Wayne State -- and the benefits of its presence are focused in Ann Arbor, not Detroit.

Still, it wasn't inevitable that 200 years later Michigan would today still have relatively few private colleges. Many states, like California, that missed the fertile college-founding period of the early 19th century eventually saw more private institutions spring up. Michigan saw some, but not many, and few around Detroit. The city's burgeoning automobile economy seemed to offer endless decently paying jobs that didn't require a degree. Those now-departed career tracks help explain why Michigan ranks 21st nationally in the proportion of adults 25 to 64 with a high school degree but 32nd in the proportion with a bachelor's.

So between the economy and the good option the public university provided, Michigan -- and especially Detroit -- never developed a strong culture of private colleges and universities. In Ohio, by contrast, private colleges flourished and public higher education emerged relatively late (Ohio State wasn't founded until 1870). Today Michigan, with just under 10 million people, has 33 4-year private colleges (not counting affiliated campuses). Ohio, just slightly larger at 11.5 million people, has 60.

Yet this narrative feels incomplete. First, private research universities can co-exist in proximity to prominent public ones (Duke and the University of North Carolina, Stanford and Berkeley). Yes, Michigan was settled later than other eastern states, and to be a top-tier private school, it helps to be old (if possible, to predate the republic). But a super-wealthy benefactor can rocket a new or unremarkable institution to the top. Think of William Marsh Rice and the family of Leland Stanford Jr., founding their now-top 20 namesake institutions in the late 19th century. Or take tobacco baron James Duke, who gave $20 million to transform struggling Trinity College in North Carolina into Duke University.*

So the question is, where was Detroit's Leland Stanford or James Duke? This brings us to my second theory. In the "great men" version, perhaps it was just Detroit's bad luck that Ford, its most famous industrialist, hated cities (he once said the only solution to the city "problem" was for people to leave them). He also hated elites. And Jews. Together those traits didn't add up to someone likely to spend his money on a large urban university (though Ford did take over and support Detroit's city hospital).

A farm boy and largely an autodidact, Ford did believe in and support education. But his educational causes were vocational and extended beyond Michigan. (The contemporary Ford Foundation does have programs supporting higher education, but is generally associated with international issues. The $3.2 billion Kresge Foundation, based in the Detroit suburb of Troy, is active in both Detroit and higher education causes, but its higher education support is national in scope. There are handsome Kresge auditoriums and libraries on a number of campuses, including the University of Michigan, but there is no Kresge University.)

But if not Ford, why not others? I asked Robert Fishman, a University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning and a historian of the city, for his theory on why no great private university ever emerged in Detroit. He said it was something he'd often wondered. But he didn't think it was just coincidence.

Detroit's business culture, Fishman told me, contained a deep suspicion of academia. He noted each of the Big Three ran their own tech schools and enormous in-house research operations, and all were distrustful of outsiders, preferring to promote from within.

"Even GM, the most intelligent of the Big Three, went very far through their Tech Center to isolate their research from university research open to public examination and scrutiny," Fishman told me in an e-mail. "The Detroit auto people were just not interested in -- [they were] positively threatened by -- the openness and skepticism of academia." The culture could not have been more different from the revolving door between Stanford and Hewlett Packard, then Apple, and then Google. "This separation between the auto companies and the wider urban culture of Detroit was very damaging, and very different from, say, Silicon Valley later on," Fishman said.

If that culture cost Detroit a great private university, the loss is considerable. That's not because Ford was necessarily wrong in his anti-elite approach. Today, close to half of the roughly $417 billion controlled by American universities in their endowments belongs to just the 20 richest institutions. Arguably, that concentration of wealth isn't healthy.

But what if Detroit had enjoyed a piece of it? Just 12 percent of adults living in the city have a bachelor's degree. Such institutions do more for a city than graduate and employ educated workers. They also generate a kind of trade surplus -- tuition checks (from the mostly wealthy students who regrettably predominate at such places), federal research grants, and health care dollars from surrounding regions (and, even more lucratively, wealthy foreigners). The city of Detroit's crushing health care costs might be more bearable if so many of those dollars didn't flow out of the city. Some do stay, through the large Henry Ford Health System's operations there. But many also head out to the suburbs to the systems suburban hospitals, and to the University of Michigan's massive medical system. Relatively few people, on balance, travel into Detroit for health care.

Big private research universities have also become bold, if controversial, urban developers. In roughly the late 1980s, the private University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Columbia all reached the same conclusion: without making their neighborhoods safer and more appealing, they could no longer attract the students and faculty they needed to be among the world's best. Their efforts often provoked opposition. But those neighborhoods did change. I was one of those scared-off prospective students who visited Penn in the early 1990s. Today, Penn's neighborhood is transformed, and the university's reputation has indeed grown.

A big research university probably couldn't have turned the ship of many of Detroit's fundamental problems. It offers no obvious antidote to political corruption, nor to the apparent blessing that proved a cancer to Detroit: jobs that gave not just middle-class whites, but working-class whites and eventually their black counterparts, the means to move to the suburbs, eventually leaving only the black underclass in the city.

But it might have offered some inoculation against economic monoculture, which both left and right can agree was central to Detroit's catastrophe. And it could have anchored neighborhoods, like Cleveland's University Circle, that provide urban islands of relative stability during rough times and then a base to build out from - exactly what Mayor Dave Bing is desperately trying to seed in Detroit. Had someone a century ago donated the equivalent of $1 billion today to start a "Stanford on the Great Lakes" in Detroit, the effect might have been profound. 

Perhaps it's not too late. Such an effort today would likely be criticized as far from the best use of $1 billion for Detroit, and it would face considerable obstacles. But it would have one thing going for it. One of the challenges these days for universities like Penn and Columbia is expanding in the newly pricey neighborhoods they've gentrified. Affordable real estate would not be a problem for somebody starting a university in Detroit.

*This section has been corrected to reflect the nature of the relationship between James Duke and Duke University.