Monday, July 29, 2013


Henry Ford U?

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?

Philadelphia is approaching Detroit levels of insolvency, and it has a lot of private universities. I strongly doubt that an additional large university would have done a whole lot for Detroit as a whole.
Chicago was hardly a monoculture in stockyard days. Carl Sandburg got the "Player with Railroads" and the "Stacker of Wheat" but missed inter alia candy manufacture, steel, retailing, and radio. Today, it still functions as port of entry for traded goods in the Midwest (agricultural products headed east, manufactured products headed west) and as a financial center. None of Detroit, St. Louis, or Cleveland ever performed such functions.

Detroit's economy might even have taken down a halfway decent Catholic university, the University of Detroit (once a basketball power) that merged with Mercy College sometime in the 1980s. Marquette in Milwaukee or Loyola (pick Baltimore or Chicago) might not be immune from external pressures. influences.
Counter-example: is there a large private univ in Buffalo? SUNY Buffalo does have some good research, at least in my engineering field. Wayne State does have some research too. Is a university research hospital an important feature of a private U in a city?

Cleveland has Case-Western Reserve; I'm not sure about the size of its impact. (There is a med school.) Baltimore has Johns Hopkins, and the Hopkins Hospital could be the largest employer. Brown U in Providence is affiliated with a few hospitals, and there is also Providence College (more basketball).

The physical expanse of Detroit could certainly be an issue, as many have mentioned. Even in the 1990's there were sections that had an aspect of "what if one built a city and no one came?"

Captha humor: "phatme"
A major difference between some of the cities you list and Detroit is that few people with money have lived in the city since those neighborhoods moved to the distant suburbs. Detroit has nothing like the large apartment towers in Chicago or New York. What was left of the middle class (both black and white) fled after the riots in the mid 60s.

There were parts of Detroit with that "and no one came" aspect in the 1970s. It was a slow motion train wreck that spit out a new pro baseball field, new pro football field, and (apparently, even mid-bankruptcy) a new pro hockey arena while the city faded away.

Corruption is only part of the story. New York City has been known to be a bit corrupt in the past with its own "distinctive" leadership. Cities can work around that.

On your point about private schools, I was immediately reminded of the former General Motors Institute (Kettering University), which is in totally dead Flint. Its relatively narrow focus on engineering and business management did not help Flint any more than the U of Detroit helped Detroit.

With medicine being the new growth industry, perhaps the real problem for Detroit was, indeed, the move of the U of M to AA. Its medical school and facilities pulled the center of that industry well away from Detroit. You might not even need a private university if you have private money. The medical complex on the other side of the state, in Grand Rapids, was fostered by private money and the medical school followed (moving from East Lansing).

PS - I LOL'd at the mention of "odd miles" between Detroit and Ann Arbor.
I'd note that many of the other cities you mentioned, with world-class private research universities, were not industrial monoculutres to begin with. Chicago sure wasn't, and St. Louis as well. Pittsburgh was an industrial monoculture, though.

Nor is having an industrial monoculture a prerequisite for urban collapse (e.g., Newark and Camden).

I think the interaction of a diverse industrial culture and a world-class private (or public--see Columbus, Ohio) research university is perhaps more important.
There's a largish medical school at Wayne (the administration and faculty used to brag on having both law and medicine, at the time neither Michigan nor Michigan State had both.) The challenge to Wayne's faculty has always been to balance establishing visibility in their fields with being helpful to students who might not always have been well-prepared, or perhaps well-situated. I'm not as familiar with Buffalo, although I'd guess some of the challenges there are similar. At least we're thinking about universities for their intellectual activities, rather than positioning their football programs for greater visibility.
"Yes, Coleman Young was a demagogue and a disaster. Yes, Kwame Kilpatrick was even worse. "

Detroit was destroyed because all Americans looked away from those corrupt politicians, letting them get away with it, for fear of being labeled "racist."

Against that background, a "Ford University" would have been utterly pointless.

There's a great piece in today's Wall Street Journal op-ed page on the depths of Detroit's dysfunction even today, but it's behind the paywall.
Ah, the reappearance of Edmund Dantes. You know, I've actually shown your comments to friends who were moderates because articulate conservatives "couldn't be that bad" and gotten through to them. Good times.

Yes of course Detroit's failure is entirely and exclusively due to white guilt, and Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal is here to tell you about how Those People can't be trusted to manage their own affairs.

The systematic destruction of the American manufacturing base due to shifts in industrial policy couldn't possibly have anything to do with it. White racism and unwillingness to accept African-Americans as equals (the riots) couldn't possibly have anything to do with it. No, it was the subhumans shitting their own beds.

Conservatives, man. Conservatives.

I don't recall any evidence that Coleman Young was either a demagogue (Matt Reed) or corrupt (Edmund Dantes). He was profane and didn't hide his contempt for racists (plenty of whom had moved north to Detroit in the 40s) and McCarthyites, but he was respected by the Republican politicians and businessmen he worked with on projects like the Renaissance Center.

Urban redevelopment may have been the wrong solution to what ailed Detroit after the 67 riots, and the income tax pushed people out of the city if their factory job was outside the city, but no story is complete without considering the leadership of Jerome Cavanagh during the 67 riot. The failure of Detroit might have been inevitable after that disaster and the criminals involved with HUD.
Detroit became the Motor City because of its location on the Great Lakes made it one of the cheapest places for the delivery of steel. It was near the main railroad trunk lines that ran from New York through to Chicago. It was built for the automobile industry of its day, and in a way it was destroyed by the automobile. It was the interstate highways that let one locate a car plant anywhere, so car plants were moved east and west and south, mainly south. Detroit never diversified and never focused on what Jane Jacobs called "import replacement", so it never turned into a real city. It was more like a mining camp before the ore ran out.

Yes, a university would have helped. So would a bunch of other businesses. I remember the Lynds, in their latter Middletown book, explaining how the teachers' college helped Muncie get through the Great Depression. All that money passing through and no one built the necessary institutions. It was a missed opportunity, but I think the sheer success of the motor car meant that too many other possibilities were squeezed out.

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