Building Community Partnerships

Table of Contents:

I turn now to the external side of leadership of an engaged metropolitan university. An important part of the metropolitan mission of our campus has been a purposeful effort at cultivating partnerships with organizations in the metropolitan community. Cultivating and sustaining partnerships is not a simple thing. Trust and reliable commitment are crucial for building community partnerships as well. This is a place where the practice of field philosophy is very helpful. Community partners are not usually academics, and they are not generally interested in purely academic debates. But they are often passionately concerned about the contents of philosophical debates—the implications of human equality when it comes to schooling and healthcare, the requirements of justice when it comes to environmental risks in neighborhoods, or debates about the basic institutions of society. The most basic issues of social philosophy come into play when university leaders and community-based organizations attempt to engage in real work together. This also means, however, that university leaders need to engage in discussion and collaboration in language that is publicly accessible, not “inside baseball.” Referring to the “difference principle” in a discussion with a community organization will meet with blank stares, whereas referring to the idea that a city should be managed in ways that have the greatest impact on the least well off will be quickly understood and discussed.

A common shortcoming of relationships between universities and community-based organizations is the possibility of mixed motives and limited reliability (on both sides). Community partners often worry that the university is interested in the partnership for reasons other than the best interests of the individuals represented by the community organization—for example, a desire to gain research opportunities for faculty and students or a desire to gain recognition for “good works.” There is a concern that the university will behave in self-serving ways in the partnership. And community partners worry that the university’s commitment will end prematurely. To put it in terms familiar from Aristotle’s conception of friendship, community organizations worry that their partnerships with universities may resemble Aristotle’s idea of “friendship based on utility” rather than “friendship of the good” (Aristotle 1987). It is therefore important for the leader of an engaged university to act deliberately in ways that cultivate trust in other community organizations. The failure of trust demonstrated at every turn in the Flint water crisis in Michigan is a riveting example of failure of partnership—in this case, between a low-income community and the state agencies charged with ensuring their health and safety.

One of the huge disadvantages created by a significantly segregated society is the fact that citizens, including leaders, have little concrete experience with individuals from different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds from their own. This results in problems more serious than missing the significance of the other person’s holidays or knowing something about the food and dietary preferences of the other group. It means that citizens and leaders often lack a basis for understanding the emotional and value framework of the other person, sometimes even for understanding the referents of the language of the other person. Successful collaboration requires mutual respect, a substantial amount of empathy, and a developed set of intercultural skills of mutual understanding. These capacities, in turn, are best cultivated by having the opportunity to interact in significant and extended ways with individuals from other racial, ethnic, or religious communities. Gaining inter-cultural competence requires vivid engagements that incorporate the perspectives and experiences of people with significantly different histories and environments than one’s own. It goes without saying that these kinds of engagements are not sufficient all by themselves to create a broader and more nuanced understanding of the situations and experiences of others; but extended multicultural experience is certainly a strongly enhancing factor, and its absence is likely to create a narrow worldview.

What does it take to be successful at developing and deepening meaningful relationships with individuals whose cultural backgrounds are significantly different from one’s own? It takes curiosity about the other person; a readiness to feel respect for the other person; and an ability to reach out in effective ways to elicit interaction and trust from the other person. Philosophy does not guarantee that a person will possess these features of personality, but it helps. Philosophy casts doubt on dogmatic assumptions about the ineluctable rightness of one’s own assumptions, and a corresponding tendency to be curious about the perspectives and attitudes of the other person. Philosophy is conducive to understanding how fundamental the idea of the equal worth of different people is—whether one is immersed in the ideas of Kant, Buber, or Amartya Sen. So the personal stance of being respectful of other people is supported by one’s philosophical ideas about the nature of humanity as much as it is by one’s everyday experience. Finally, the dialogical nature of most philosophical thinking— the idea that we can get to a better understanding of difficult problems by interacting with other people in an extended way—creates a personal disposition toward open conversation with other people.

It should be honestly acknowledged that conversation and interaction across the lines of race, religion, or ethnicity does not always result in a meeting of the minds or a deep basis of agreement. It is a social reality that there are structures in our society that have led to serious inequality, disadvantage, and bad treatment, and those histories are not erased by good will and mutual understanding. On occasion, in the course of my experience as an engaged university leader, I have had interactions with individuals who fundamentally mistrusted my intentions because of my race or economic and institutional privilege. These occasions have been very rare, however. And when they do occur, another set of philosophical traits is helpful—humility, patience, and resilience. It is crucial that one should avoid becoming defensive, exercise resilience in one’s confidence in the importance of intercultural interaction, and accept that the other person’s point of view is itself a legitimate one.

Consider an example of community partnerships that have flourished at my university. New Detroit is a racial justice organization in Detroit that was founded in the months following the uprising and civil unrest in Detroit in 1967. New Detroit is committed to the goals of ending racial disadvantage and racial prejudice in the Detroit metropolitan region. Like the Kerner Commission that was convened in 1968 to investigate the outbreak of race riots in American cities in 1967 and 1968, New Detroit embraces the idea that racial justice and racial understanding are crucial for a healthy and just future for American cities, and for Detroit and the state of Michigan in particular. New Detroit agrees with the view endorsed by many other civil rights organizations that many of the inflammatory conditions of inequality that existed in 1967 and 1968 still persist today in 2019.

I joined the board of directors of New Detroit in 2002, and have served on this board ever since. During that time I also served as chair of the Racial Justice Taskforce and participated in a round of strategic planning for the organization. The Taskforce eventually led to several important results: the establishment of an ongoing “Conversation on Race” at my university, which has now completed 15 years of operation, and addressing racial health disparities as a lead priority for New Detroit in its policy advocacy.

The founding idea for the Conversation on Race for a New Generation derived from the realization that the realities of race are different for young people than they are for the generation of people who came of age in the 1960s. Teenagers and young people in their twenties in the United States have distinct experiences of race, including discrimination, bias, excessive use of force by police, racial profiling, and notable disparities in health and education. Racecontinues to be a fundamental cleavage in the United States. But these experiences are different from those that formed the political consciousness of the same age cohort in the 1960s. And the iconic monuments of the struggle for racial equality that stand out for the earlier generation (e.g., Selma, Birmingham, Bull Connor, Skokie, the Black Panthers) are not part of the experience and consciousness of the current generation of young people. The idea of the Conversation on Race was to create an ongoing forum for young people of all racial and religious backgrounds to come together for honest discussion of their various experiences of family, community, policing, classroom, and worship that forged their racial identities.

As chancellor of my university I offered to the leaders of New Detroit a commitment to undertake to create a pilot of such a conversation on our campus. In partnership with New Detroit, a year-long series of events was planned, involving concerted efforts to create an environment of trust and civility in which students would be able to interact with each other honestly about some of the most difficult issues our society faces. This was a genuine partnership between the university and New Detroit. The university provided much of the organizational effort and the funding for the series of events, and New Detroit provided advice and coaching about how to create a positive environment for these conversations. It is a particular strength of New Detroit to have developed skills of interpersonal interaction that help difficult conversations proceed in a positive and respectful manner, and New Detroit shared its knowledge in this area with the campus organizers of the events. The goal was to create an environment in which intense and transformative conversations would develop through which a diverse group of students would learn from each other and come to see more clearly the perspectives and life experiences of individuals from other groups and communities. This goal was often achieved in the many conversations hosted on campus under this program.

The Conversation on Race has become a permanent part of the programming and identity of the campus. The academic year 2017-2018 represented the fifteenth year of uninterrupted programming of the Conversation on Race. Responsibility for the program has been incorporated into the Student Life division of the university, with substantial input as well from the chief inclusion officer of the campus. The Conversation has become part of the DNA of the campus. In 2003, our campus was ready for change toward becoming a more inclusive environment; but we sometimes lacked the language and skills necessary to bring this about. The Conversation on Race helped us to develop those skills, and a commitment to multiracial diversity and inclusion on our campus is now a deep part of the culture of the campus.

How did my background as a philosopher play into this successful university collaboration? Previous sections of this chapter have highlighted the qualities of character and thought that are most helpful in creating a trusting partnership with other groups across racial and cultural lines. Fundamentally, those qualities include curiosity, humility, respect for others, commitment to equality, and a willingness to learn. The New Detroit story' depended on trust. It was necessary' for me to establish my legitimate and deeply-held commitments to racial justice, and my' genuine desire to learn from other people, before it would be possible for me to play any sort of “citizen-leader” role within the organization. It was also necessary' to make it clear that my interest in the organization was in longterm partnership, not short-term advantage. Establishing the basis for this kind of trust required that I be a certain kind of person; and that person is one who has been deeply' etched by' social philosophy. Similar qualities were needed on campus to help establish and sustain the Conversation on Race. Other leaders needed to be inspired with the value of such an effort for deepening the racial and cultural sensibilities of our students. Without taking undue credit, the persistence of the Conversation on Race depended on a many-years’ commitment on my part to speaking out about the importance of inclusion, diversity, and racial equality on our campus. This has always been a personal commitment; but it is also a reflection of a deliberative effort to formulate a practical view of what the university’s most fundamental values are. And this view has a great deal to do with social philosophy.

These examples of benefits from the relationship between New Detroit and the university are fairly ordinary'. But in truth, the largest benefit for both organizations is the assistance each can offer in times of stress. The university has been able to succeed in creating a welcoming environment for a very diverse population of students in part because of the advice and advocacy of leaders at New Detroit, which has been an important contributor to the inclusiveness of our campus. But equally, when various racial and religious communities in greater Detroit were under stress from provocative and bigoted opportunists nationally, the university’s steady' friendship with the organization and our solidarity in the face of these provocations was an important and welcome form of support for the organization as well.


My journey' as a university leader has coincided with the development and refinement of the institutional mission and effectiveness of a university that its stakeholders have every' reason to be proud of. I would summarize the progress of the university in these years to three large features. First, the university has come to share a broad identity as a metropolitan university which strives for positive impact on our urban region through effective engagement and collaboration. Second, the university has made dramatic progress in establishing an inclusive environment for all of its diverse constituencies. And, third, the university has been admirably effective in deepening its partnerships and collaborations with other organizations in our region. This level of success owes much to the climate of collaboration that has characterized the university in recent years.

No leader can take primary credit for the large achievements of the organization she or he has the privilege of leading. Change and effectiveness at a university are clear examples of joint products in which the excellence and dedication of the various parties within the university are crucial for success. But leaders play a role. They help secure consensus about mission and purpose; they help inspire stakeholders about the value of the work they do; they create an environment for respectful and collaborative work and learning; and they help to foster external partners who can help in achieving success that is impossible alone.

Perhaps most fundamentally, I have learned through philosophy the importance of having one’s own moral compass in all of one’s activities. To be “all in” for addressing racial disadvantage or patterns of sexual harassment is pragmatically wise for a university leader. But it is also a responsibility of personal moral commitment. Being clear in one’s own mind about some fundamental commitments regarding social and personal equality and wellbeing sometimes requires dramatic steps; but, more often, it serves as a superb guide to formulating strategies that lead to better outcomes. If we know very clearly that we have a duty to help create a world free of racism and other invidious forms of interpersonal and structural bias, then we are more likely to give priority to institutional arrangements and local practices that lead to a more equal social environment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was well trained in the history and practice of philosophy. He also brought many personal strengths to his calling as an advocate and leader for a civil rights revolution in the United States. But it can also be said that his life of leadership and advocacy exemplified the talents and practices that would have made for an excellent university president.


Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987.

Gutmann, Amy. Why Deliberative Democracy? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Maty J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Little, Daniel. The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

Nussbaum, Martha. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. Development as Freedom. 1st edn. New York: Knopf, 1999.

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