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Howes: Despite closure, Marygrove is a success story

college building exterior
Marygrove College
Marygrove College.
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News
Detroit News

Marygrove College is folding, three years after its financial crisis became undeniable.

It closes officially in December. It leaves 300 graduate students looking for somewhere else to finish their degrees, faculty alternating between frustration and anger, alums sad their college didn’t make it.

But its mission to educate Detroiters — nurtured ever since the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary moved the school to the city from Monroe — lives. When the Kresge Foundation led a $16 million financial rescue of the school two years ago, the goal was to prevent the historic campus from going dark.

They succeeded, despite the closing.

Partners in a new public education concept they call “P-20” – a preschool to graduate program vision led by Kresge and the Detroit Public Schools Community District – say they remain committed to the program.

An incoming class of 120 ninth graders will start in September at “The School @ Marygrove.” Teachers in the University of Michigan’s innovative teacher residency program will be on campus. Groundbreaking for a Kresge-backed Early Childhood Center managed by Starfish Family Services is expected to happen before the end of the year.

All of it, and more, are poised to fill the educational void left by the college’s closure. And that’s exactly what Kresge wanted to accomplish with its rescue of Marygrove: to buy time to build a coalition eager to shape a new model for urban public education and community redevelopment.

It would partner public schools with higher education, family services and philanthropy. It would ensure that a historic campus, a cornerstone of its neighborhood for 92 years, stayed vibrant and true to its mission. And it would do just that even if Marygrove College couldn’t overcome the toxic combination of declining enrollment, sinking revenue and rising debt.

The demise of Marygrove is a familiar Detroit story: an institution evoking the city’s Golden Age lurches toward collapse. It’s a victim of changing times, of demographic shifts, of management that failed to act before being overwhelmed by financial distress.

It’s early, of course. The college remains open. The ninth graders haven’t arrived. Michigan’s teacher residency program, familiar in American medical schools, is just launching. And construction is yet to begin on the children’s center.

But if the recent past of coalition building and problem solving in Detroit are any indication, the Marygrove campus could become a national model for urban education. Which, of course, is the point — and an opportunity.

In theory, the closure of Marygrove could be a setback for the P-20 model. But its leaders don’t seem to think so, because they long understood that the college’s financial distress could prove too severe to reverse. And that’s what happened.

No, this could be a chance to bring some bigger higher-ed firepower to campus … say the University of Michigan. President Mark Schlissel is keen to raise the university’s profile in the city where it was founded more than 200 years ago. The new mission at Marygrove may be the right place to start.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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