Proposed: The U of M’s Pfizer Space Becomes the Hub of a Global Intellectual Haven

08Jul10

In previous posts, I suggested that a tough economy and chronic undervaluing of intellectual assets create an environment in which Ph.Ds can be acquired cheaply, and that it makes sense to provide highly skilled people with Internet access and other basic resources needed to make themselves useful to society.

The University of Michigan has acquired a large, largely vacant Ann Arbor office facility from Pfizer.  Meanwhile, a half-hour to the east, Detroit faces a different kind of vacancy issue:  tens of thousands of abandoned houses that are slated for demolition.

Apparently one or more studies have found that 95% of those houses are still liveable.  Moreover, some neighborhoods in Detroit are experiencing a classic artists’ renaissance. It seems, in other words, that southeastern Michigan may face a confluence of crises and opportunities, by which an infusion of hundreds or thousands of intellectuals into targeted Detroit neighborhoods could powerfully stimulate those communities, economically and otherwise.

In other words, can we find a way to make those houses available to intellectuals who are otherwise spinning their wheels — and who, in light of systemic changes in higher education, are likely to continue to do so?  Specifically, can we combine the housing surplus in Detroit and the office space possibilities at the former Pfizer space, in ways that will benefit Detroit, Ann Arbor, the university, and those individuals?

Large numbers of presently unemployed, or otherwise unproductive or underemployed — but highly educated, skilled, or otherwise knowledgeable — workers from around the world could contribute to the viability of those Detroit neighborhoods by their very presence.  At the same time, they could use express bus or commuter rail service to travel from Detroit to Ann Arbor.  That is, their welcome to the U of M would not necessarily require (in fact, it could be structured to preclude) substantial additional automobile traffic in Ann Arbor.  They would nonetheless presumably have a beneficial impact on attendance at various university events, neighborhood restaurants, and the like.

In one scenario, the university would provide basic computing resources, scheduled access to a private or shared carrel or cubicle in the Pfizer space, general access to tables in a library-like facility, Detroit-area housing subsidized at least to the tune of the cost of bulldozing, and a pass for the express shuttle.  In addition to the credential of a university affiliation, participants would thus acquire a point of anchoring or reference and, not incidentally, self-respect.  In exchange, as described in my previous posts (above), the university would receive a commitment of, say, 20 hours of service per week on general or specific assignments, with encouragement for the recipients to use the balance of their time productively within their areas of expertise.  The proposal is, in a sense, a nongovernmental organizational (NGO) variation on the theme of the Federal Writers Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s.

Such a project would generate important opportunities for social science research into a plethora of topics, including mental health, employment, camaraderie and shared purpose, post-industrialism, the role of NGOs, community revitalization, and cyclical, long-term roles of the arts in the national economy.  Such research could itself be a product — indeed, it could be a structuring principle — in the enterprise.

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