In the land of Big Three universities and football wins, tiny Marygrove College doesn’t much matter. That’s the Michigan way – a not-so-flattering reflection of its warped values.
That’s a mistake. Marygrove is the creation of Catholic sisters from Monroe still deeply committed to helping Detroit. They opened Marygrove in 1927, establishing what became the state’s only predominantly African-American small liberal arts college. In later years, many of the students were the first in their families to go to college and most of them hailed from Detroit.
But plunging enrollment delivered a financial crisis last summer that forced the trustees to kill the undergraduate program and cut the faculty by some 75%.
Enter the Kresge Foundation and the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Together they pledged millions of dollars to save the school from nasty meetings with creditors. They provided working capital to pay the bills, and they’re working to write a new chapter for Marygrove in urban education, all to ensure the campus would not be dismembered and sold.
By now this should all be a familiar story to those familiar with the arc of Detroit decline, rescue and rebirth. A storied institution finally reaches the precipice of collapse – think the bankruptcies of General Motors or the city of Detroit. Overseers clamor for help. In steps the civic-minded set. Those folks didn’t cause the problem but they’re about the only ones with the moxie and the vision to fix it.
They can see the opportunity. They see the moment for Detroit neighborhoods to husband and exploit their geographic inheritance, to fashion a new model for urban education and community redevelopment. One that could be replicated around the country.
All this isn’t just about some small college in Detroit that couldn’t keep up with the times. Marygrove is a cornerstone of a neighborhood targeted by city hall for revival. Its failure would leave a dark hole in an otherwise brightening corner of the city – the kind of neighborhood revitalization average Detroiters desperately want in the era of Dan Gilbert’s downtown.
This is the little college that people in the land of Ann Arbor and East Lansing never heard of. It’s the school that offered the nation’s first masters in social justice before such things were cool. That vowed to admit 68 African-American women in 1968, a year after the unrest that roiled Marygrove’s enrollment and shaped Detroit’s trajectory for half a century.
This week, the ownership of the college will be conveyed to a non-profit conservancy to protect the buildings and the campus. Graduate school classes continue, most of them online, as the school and its benefactors work to chart a future. It could include a preschool through grad school model developed by Detroit Public Schools. Or by a charter operator.
Or someone else who could realize the vision to keep Marygrove what it was always intended to be – a school to educate Detroiters in Detroit. A gift from the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
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.