In this exclusive interview, Dr. Antoine M. Garibaldi, the 25th president of the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), and the first African American to sit at the helm of affairs at the university, talks to Michigan Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson about why he chose to come to Detroit, his vision for the region, and the need to build a generation of critical thinkers. The former provost and chief academic officer of Howard University and president of Ganon University, also focuses on the future of young Black males and the role universities should play in our current economy.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: How has it been so far since you became president of the University of Detroit Mercy?
ANTOINE GARIBALDI: It’s been very productive. Though it’s ten months into the year right now, I’ll say there are a lot of things which I’ve been able to do thus far that were on my list, which includes getting out to the community and getting to know all the city and county leaders, as well as all of the education leaders. Also got around to Oak Park School District, parochial and public schools.
MC: What’s been your sense of this area?
AG: First, people have a high degree of regard and respect for the university. They are pretty knowledgeable about the quality of education we provide. They also know what we do out in the community. One of the platforms is community engagement that the university is so well known for. I’d like to start with our School of Architecture, because right now in the Detroit Collaborative Design Center much of the work those individuals are doing…working along with Detroit Works, and doing some of the focus groups that would be necessary in what the next footprint of this city would look like.
MC: What role do you see your university playing in Detroit’s transformation?
AG: Well, we’re involved in it. We’ve got all of this talent in terms of education, the school of law downtown, the school of dentistry playing important roles. I’d like to think more than anything that we have three campuses in the city of Detroit, more than 90 acres and we’re going to be here to stay. We consider ourselves a part of this community and also we want to strengthen every aspect of it. There are also some conversations I’ve been having with some neighborhood groups about how we can strengthen and expand some neighborhoods. We’re certainly looking at Livernois. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation has Six Mile-Eight Mile as a target. We really want to cover Six M Roadile to the Lodge freeway as well. We’d like to expand retail, we’d like to expand the opportunities for our students and our faculty and staff to live. There are so many things that we can do and its going to require some partnerships.
MC: You are the first lay person — non-priest — to be the president of this university. That means a departure from how past administrations operated. Do you agree?
AG: Somewhat. The individuals who preceded me from Father Jerry Stackhouse to Sister Maureen Fay also had the same kinds of visions for the university. Our leadership styles might vary but we all have the same basic interests that been urban, Jesuit and Catholic, and focusing on services of social justice are all important dimensions of our mission. I might do it in a little different way but I think that any kind of way in which we can expand our involvements and opportunities we should take full advantage of. There are some other opportunities we want to build on too. We are going to host a White House town hall meeting for young people in May.
MC: Is there an expectation with you being the first African-American president of the University of Detroit?
AG: Some people may see it that way (laughs). I like to think of it more from my standpoint of being engaged, really involved in the city and I really think that the faculty and staff as well as the students have that same kind of feeling. That’s why they come here because this is the place that’s known for its active involvement in the city and in the community. We want to make a commitment here in the same way our predecessors did. The fact that I’m Black probably has something to do with it, but more so is the fact that I’ve been in urban communities for most of my life and most of my career.
MC: Given the depth of your background, what specifically motivated you to come to Detroit?
AG: Well, I really saw it as an opportunity to be a part of a renaissance, part of a city that really has a future in spite of all the economic problems and the political issues that, and the educational situation. The opportunity to make a difference is much more important than the opportunity to just have an educational institution in the city, but that educational institution has to be engaged. It’s actually been exceeded because so many people have reached out to me, and also to my wife.
MC: In this tough economy, what role should universities play?
AG: I think educational institutions should be a part of the community. We are part of this immediate area, we are a part of the city. All of the intellectual power that a university can bring as well as the interest of young people in most instances, who are very interested in staying in the community can be extremely helpful. If someone is looking for assistance in the development of leadership programs, we’ve got that here.
All of our pro bono clinics we have downtown is such a wide range. One of the items we’ve been working on this year is developing a comprehensive fundraising campaign, that we can develop the plans to raise millions of dollars so that we can build our endowment and have resources we can draw from on an annual basis to support student scholarships and special initiatives. We need to be able to support the research and the scholarship of our faculty and staff and many students are beneficiaries of that.
MC: What do you see as the biggest crisis in education today?
AG: I see the biggest crisis as the under-preparation of many of our young people. Many who are in high schools today don’t have the same level of education as some of us may have had. And this is not a criticism of teachers. I think that teachers do a great job, and I’m saying it as someone who started out as an elementary school teacher.
Also, I’ve trained teachers for seven years at Xavier in New Orleans. Teachers need financial support, support from the local community, from the state. They know how to do their job, but it’s hard to do that job if you are in a classroom or in a building that doesn’t have the same kinds of high quality and technological information that may be another more well-of school has.
The other distraction is a lot of technology for our young people today. They spend a lot more time on those smart phones than they do reading books. So we have to make sure we can help young people be good spellers, readers, writers and they can count, that they can think very well.
One of the challenges I give to students is you have to have high expectations and set goals for yourself. We’ve already reached the point where so many of those young people coming from high schools are students of color. And students of color in particular are the ones who are at many of the schools that really need that kind of assistance. It’s not just crisis in education, it’s a crisis in our future because these are the future leaders.
MC: What do you make of the debate about school choices today?
AG: It’s not about the type of school that you go into, its whether or not the school can deliver high quality education, that the students when they leave are critical thinkers, that they know how to read and write, and are also well prepared for secondary education or post-secondary education. Most communities today and in a lot of urban areas, you find yourselves in situations where you have so many public schools, so many schools that are independent and charter and the jury is still out on that.
The U.S. Department of Education I know has done some studies in the last ten years to determine what makes a good school and whether or not charter schools are better than public schools. Well, you have to start looking at the different kinds of schools on a case-by-case basis.
MC: You’ve written books and done a lot of research about the underachievement of young Black males. Will you continue that at UDM?
AG: Absolutely. There are a number of groups here in town that have spoken to me about some of the different things that they have under way. I’d like to talk with them and find what whatever it is that they are doing. The study which I did has been replicated by a number of schools around the country.
We can teach students how to act, read and write, but we really want to make sure that the students set very high goals for themselves. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that quite often. His mentor was Dr. Benjamin Mays, and Dr. Mays was always very good in communicating that to those Morehouse men and to other students.
But we have to let particularly young African- American males know that you are not going to succeed by just doing the average. You have to be twice as good. That was the message my parents and teachers gave me.
MC: Do you think there is a disconnect between today’s generation and the generation that preceded it?
AG: I’m not sure that there is a disconnect. I think that there were probably some messages that we didn’t get across nearly as strong because so many other revolutionary things occurred. I’m talking about technology as an example. I believe that there are many young people who don’t know what it was like to not use a cell phone, a smart phone. They expect that today. In my view those were things that were not in the cards. You did things manually, went to the library and took books out. That’s what enhanced your reading abilities and other skills.