A Long History of Community Engagement at Michigan State University
Michigan and its cities are active on many fronts to improve residents’ quality of life, including revitalizing neighborhoods, fostering economic development, and improving health and educational outcomes. A dedicated partner in these efforts is Michigan State University (MSU), the first land grant university in the United States, with a long history as an anchor institution in its home city of East Lansing and throughout the state.
Under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, who was the university’s provost for 11 years before becoming its president in 2005, community engagement became a defining activity of Michigan State. Its office of University Outreach and Engagement pursues community partnerships with an annual budget of $5.6 million from the provost’s office and approximately $3 million in external funding. Outreach and Engagement coordinates 12 departments and a substantial portion of the university’s 51,000 students and 11,600 faculty and staff to provide services, programs, and applied research in neighborhoods surrounding the campus and throughout the state. The university particularly excels at addressing challenges through community-based scholarship and applied faculty research, says Hiram Fitzgerald, associate provost for Outreach and Engagement.
Addressing Vacant Properties and Regional Innovation
After the violent civil unrest that shook in Detroit in 1968, Michigan State established the Center for Community and Economic Development to address the needs of the city and its residents through research and community engagement. Today, the development center’s projects include faculty research, technical assistance, hands-on student learning, and the University Center for Regional Economic Innovation. Through these programs, the development center works with local and state organizations to reinvigorate the economy and reduce Michigan’s 15-percent residential vacancy rate.
With the development center’s main office located off-campus in Lansing’s ethnically and economically diverse Eastside and a satellite office in Flint, university teams and community members can work together directly, says center director Rex LaMore. Development center workers can learn about residents’ concerns, and neighborhood groups can access development center resources. In fact, the development center was a model for HUD’s Community Outreach Partnership Act of 1992, which over 13 years supported 141 community outreach initiatives throughout the country.
In recent years, the development center has participated in several projects designed to address vacant and blighted houses. A blight elimination study in Muskegon Heights in spring 2015, for which students and faculty collaborated with the Muskegon County Land Bank Authority, provided a roadmap for how the community might best use the $1.8 million it received from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund. Also in spring 2015, the development center submitted a proposal on behalf of Muskegon to the U.S. Department of Commerce to use an abandoned port site for repurposing materials salvaged from demolished houses throughout the Great Lakes region, including Detroit, Toledo, and Milwaukee. LaMore explains that the project will determine the feasibility of creating a market to reuse the “low-value, high-volume” materials, provide jobs and training opportunities for residents, and divert waste from landfills.
Working with the U.S. Department of Commerce, the development center’s University Center for Regional Economic Innovation also addresses blight by supporting six to eight small-scale, innovative projects each year. For example, Steven Mankouche, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, used three $2,500 grants to start the Afterhouse project in Detroit. Local residents, students, and faculty salvaged materials and transformed the foundation of a blighted house into a greenhouse heated by the ground and sunlight to grow citrus plants, pistachios, and other crops.
A Community-Driven Research Agenda
One of the most active departments within Outreach and Engagement is the Community Evaluation and Research Collaborative. Local communities participate in the collaborative to define research agendas, design studies, interpret project results, and apply research findings. The collaborative currently focuses on programs serving children and their families, preschool children in tribal communities, and Arab American community health in Michigan.
The program on Arab American health is in part a response to concerns raised by Dr. Adnan Hahmad, chief executive officer of the National Arab American Medical Association, who recognized the need for a statewide health assessment of the Arab American community. The collaborative refined survey questions to address the Arab/Chaldean population, and the resulting study represents the nation’s first statewide survey of Arab Americans’ health. The collaborative’s director, Miles McNall, points out two risk factors revealed in the study that cause Arab Americans’ health to be slightly worse than that of the general population: smoking tobacco in hookahs and foregoing colorectal screenings. Community involvement will continue in fall 2015, when McNall and colleagues meet with Hassan Jaber, director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. They will discuss how community health programming can respond to the report’s findings.
McNall is also proud of the collaborative’s study of the effectiveness of state and local programs, such as an afterschool math tutoring program in Lansing and a college preparatory engineering program in Detroit. These evaluations have had meaningful impacts on the programs. For example, funding for school-based health centers stabilized and the number of centers expanded after the collaborative’s evaluation showed a number of physical and mental health benefits for elementary school children who otherwise would not have had adequate access to healthcare.
A Two-Way Street
The applied research in these and other Outreach and Engagement programs helps the university meet its obligations as a member of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 research-intensive universities. The school’s commitment to community-based participatory research also enriches scholarship. “Knowledge about problems and issues does not exclusively reside in the walls of the university,” says McNall, who points out that community-based research projects give the university a chance to learn from community partners. “It’s a two-way street, a two-way exchange of information, expertise, and resources.”
Outreach and Engagement’s efforts also offer the opportunity for off-campus, applied work for students whose degrees require it. The university’s departments of social work and urban planning, which must offer applied learning to maintain their accreditation, also profit from these fieldwork opportunities. In turn, local groups benefit from the people power that university students, faculty, and staff provide. Joan Nelson, executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, relies on social work interns to participate in an annual neighborhood canvass. The resulting communication with residents identifies issues such as mortgage foreclosure and enables the Allen Center to respond. The Center also hosts workshops with instructors from the MSU Product Center and MSU Extension, who teach local food growers and entrepreneurs about food safety, regulations, and business planning. Nelson greatly appreciates the time and talents of hundreds of volunteers, including service-learning students, who staff such Allen Center programs as the greenhouse and weekly farmers market. This hands-on learning is critical to teaching “the complexity of community work,” says LaMore. “It’s like medicine. You need to be in the operating room and have your hands in the gut to do the work.”
For more information about salvaging materials when buildings are demolished, see “All That’s Old Is Renewable,” the featured article in Edge, 24 September 2013.
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Interview with Miles McNall, director, Michigan State University Community Evaluation and Research Collaborative, 4 August 2015.×
Interview with Miles McNall, 4 August 2015; K. Hekman, S. Weir, C. Fussman, and S. Lyon-Callo. 2015. “Health Risk Behaviors Among Arab Adults Within the State of Michigan: 2013 Arab Behavioral Risk Factor Survey.” Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Community Health, Lifecourse Epidemiology and Genomics Division and Health Disparities Reduction and Minority Health Section, viii.×
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Interview with Rex LaMore, 29 July 2015; Interview with Joan Nelson, 6 August 2015.×