A Michigan university grappling with the world

Feb 22, 2012

Once upon a time, universities were cloistered places, which deliberately shunned the down-and-dirty worlds of politics and the marketplace in favor of research, contemplation, and teaching.

That's never been totally the case in Michigan, however. What is now Michigan State was established for the explicit purpose of bringing "applied science" to the state's farmers and agricultural industry, back when that was the industry of Michigan.

But that's not usually been the case elsewhere. Professors traditionally earn promotion and tenure by publishing academic research and getting good teaching evaluations. Community service is seen as good, but is too seldom supported or rewarded.

Well, the University of Michigan Dearborn is trying to do something to change that. Last year, in a little-noticed move, the school reached out to hire perhaps the state's best-known and most successful community activist, Ismael Ahmed.

You may remember Ahmed. Forty years ago, he was one of he co-founders of ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. At first, it was a struggling, hand-to-mouth operation mainly concerned with food and other basic assistance for the Arab immigrant population in the Detroit area.  Over time, Ahmed, who has a natural talent for building relationships and programs, helped build ACCESS into the largest and most successful Arab-American nonprofit in the nation. Five years ago, he was appointed director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. But as the Granholm Administration was ending, the U of M Dearborn reached out to Ahmed with an idea.

 They wanted him to join the school as an associate provost for integrated learning and community partnerships. The idea was that he would be a facilitator, to help make it easier for faculty and students to get involved and get the resources they need. I went to talk with him about this the other day.

He clearly is finding this some of the most fulfilling work he has done. "We have literally thousands of students and dozens of faculty deeply engaged, making a difference in their communities," he said. "It's important to note that they are doing it, not me. My role is to help them get what they need to do it."

 The sheer number and scope of those efforts is impressive. There's a program which brings college students together with prisoners to study together in prison. It?s well known that education is the key to keeping people out of jail.

Students and faculty are also heavily involved in bringing e-learning to community ventures, including business startups. There is an especially high level of student, faculty and community engagement with the school's eCities program, which is helping more than a hundred communities identify key factors needed for growth.

Ahmed has nothing against pure academic research. But he thinks what's happening here is the model for the future.

"Dan Little, the chancellor (at Dearborn) gets the idea that there shouldn't be a divide between community and university" he told me.

  That's certainly the case at the U of M Dearborn. Years ago, ACCESS became a national model for private social welfare agencies. It will be interesting to see how much the concept of a university deeply engaged in community catches on as well.