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Henry Ford U?
July 29, 2013 - 9:50pm

Would a major private university have staved off disaster in Detroit?

Justin Pope says it might have in a new article in the Atlantic.  And I have to admit that since reading it, I haven’t been able to shake the idea.  Usually when an idea sinks its claws into my mind like that, there’s a reason.

Pope notes, correctly, that many other major Rust Belt cities have also felt the pains of deindustrialization: Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, even my old hometown of Rochester.  But while every one of those cities has faced economic challenges, each one has a major private university or two in it.  Detroit does not.  Think of the role of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Washington University in St. Louis, or even the University of Rochester (and RIT) in Rochester.  Detroit doesn’t have anything comparable.  Wayne State is public, smaller, and not nearly as lucrative in its research.  The University of Michigan is public and thirty-odd miles away, in Ann Arbor.  

Major private research universities offer significant employment; they’re often the largest employers in their host cities. (I know that’s true in Rochester, for example.) They bring in a steady influx of ambitious young people, at least some of whom stick around after graduation. They bring in significant research money. And they cultivate a separate source of power and talent from whatever local industries are hot at a given moment.

That last point, I think, is the most crucial one. Cities that have multiple large employers across a host of industries are less subject to booms and busts than cities that rely primarily on a single industry.  When Kodak went the way of, well, film photography, the U of Rochester was still there.  Part of Boston’s success, I think, lay in its combination of a robust higher education sector and a healthy mix of other industries.  Detroit has been an economic monoculture.

I don’t mean any of this to diminish the role of community colleges, of course.  They serve a set of crucial purposes, and in cases where they’re necessary but missing, the absence has consequences.  (Mandy Zatynski has done some great writing on Erie, PA, which lacks a community college. She suggests that the lack of a trained workforce was part of what drove the GE train assembly plant out of the area.)  But because they’re both thrifty and public, they don’t bring the kind of external money to a city that elite private research universities can.

Of course, Detroit has issues of its own. Over the break I read Charlie LeDuff’s book on it, which is both fascinating and frustrating. LeDuff comes off as an unreliable and unsympathetic narrator, getting arrested for domestic violence himself at one point in the tale, but even a self-important jerk can get a few things right. Yes, Coleman Young was a demagogue and a disaster. Yes, Kwame Kilpatrick was even worse.  Detroit’s racial politics have been ugly for generations, and have driven away people who had the option of leaving. Its municipal government was dysfunctional in the best of times.  

But you could say many of those same things about Chicago, which, for all of its issues, is in much better shape than Detroit. Chicago’s history of race relations isn’t all roses, and its municipal government, uh, let’s say has been on speaking terms with corruption for significant periods. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the University of Chicago is the key to Chicago’s relative success, but it doesn’t hurt. Since the stockyard days, though, Chicago hasn’t been the monoculture that Detroit was.  

Wise and worldy readers, what do you think?  If Henry Ford had followed the example of Leland Stanford, would Detroit still be viable today?

 

 

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