Mar 28, 2024 - News

New director shares his vision for U of M's innovation center

Photo illustration of Scott Shireman collaged with photos of Detroit and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals; Photo: Courtesy of the University of Michigan

The U of M Center for Innovation being built downtown has a new director who is already planning the graduate and workforce development programs that will be offered when it opens in 2027.

Why it matters: The $250 million facility has a lot of hopes riding on it — it's been pitched as a catalyst for more development in the District Detroit, as well as an economic driver.

Driving the news: We spoke this week with UMCI director Scott Shireman, who started the job Jan. 1 to help fulfill U of M's new mission around building accessible careers.

  • Starting in May, residents can give their input on future curriculum and programming at town hall sessions.

Catch up quick: UMCI is funded with $100 million from the state and $100 million from billionaire developer Stephen Ross' foundation.

State of play: Shireman grew up in Indiana and attended Northwestern University. He recently moved to Detroit and bought a house in Palmer Woods.

  • He honed his experience in workforce development education at the University of California Berkeley Extension.

Our interview with Shireman has been edited for length and clarity.

Axios: Talk a bit about how you got to this role and how it's been going so far.

  • Shireman: I grew up on a farm, first in my family to go to college. And so I, personally in my life, have seen the transformative power of education. So I pretty much made my whole career in education. I've always been in this arc of higher education, and really focused on practical skills development, workforce development, all of that. So when this position came up, it's kind of like a dream opportunity to build something from scratch at a university like Michigan.
  • There's so much exciting stuff happening in Detroit and to do the higher ed thing in a city like Detroit that's on the up, that's really exciting and motivating to me.

Can you give an overview of where the UMCI building is at?

  • We broke ground in December. They're doing a lot of digging and exploring the site to understand what's kind of there and what problems may exist. Hopefully in nine months we'll actually start to have stuff coming up out of the ground and finish construction in spring of '27. Really, fall '27 is when we would start running new degree programs.

What's the latest on what you plan to offer for both workforce development and graduate education?

  • So we will have graduate degrees. But then we are also going to have workforce development, [with] programs for students who have college degrees but are looking for advanced skills.
  • But what I get really excited about is more of the pure workforce development, and what I'm calling gateway certificates. This is, in my mind, a gateway for someone who is in a gig job or retail or something where they're not seeing a lot of career advancement. A gateway to an entry-level job in a field that does have career advancement.
  • We did a lot of this at [Shireman's former employer] Coursera. We did this at Berkeley. Michigan hasn't historically done a lot of that, but I think UMCI is a really great opportunity for doing that.

For the gateway programming, have you settled on cost structure?

  • It's still early. We're working with Detroit at Work, we're doing our own research to try to figure out what are those job roles that we can train someone that will be attractive.
  • I'm expecting the cost of doing those will be more than the price we'll be able to charge. So then it's like, how do we bridge that gap? But we want to make sure they're affordable, that they actually meet that promise of "the typical Detroiter can do this program and get a job."
  • I'm hoping to serve 2,000 students a year [for workforce development] and 500-1,000 for graduate degrees.

There have been questions about how the campus will serve residents. What are your thoughts on how it'll be beneficial for the city?

  • The design — there are six floors. The first two floors are dedicated entirely to community public programming. We'll run workforce development programs there. We're going to run programs for high school kids like Michigan Engineering Zone. We're hoping to do admissions access programming, but we're also looking at [programming for entrepreneurs].

We've talked about job training strategies and connecting people with accessible middle-wage careers for a long time in Detroit. There's a lot going on. Coming into the market from a new perspective, what else do you think can be done?

  • It's interesting to me because if you look at all the other elite public universities in the U.S., they all do workforce development as a core part of what they do. But for whatever reason, historically, University of Michigan is kind of the outlier in not doing it. This is new to Michigan but it's not new to the world, right?
  • So my approach is laser-focused on what are the jobs where companies struggle to find talent and in the longer run, what are the jobs that would attract new companies and startups to come?

What are your thoughts on the pivot the District Detroit made to focus on residential?

  • We're independent, but I think we have very related interests. If they have thriving restaurants and housing, it's going to make it easier for me to bring students to our center. If I have 500-1,000 students, it's going to be easier for them to build the amenities those students will need.
  • We are in communication because of that. I'm glad they're prioritizing the residents, because this is one of the things when I think about, OK, we're building this center in Detroit, I need housing. Having places [national and international students] can live right next to our center is going to be important.

So you're coming into a place with a lot of context and history behind how developments come up and interact with the community. How do you go about learning and educating yourself about those necessary, difficult dynamics?

  • I'm not from Detroit. It's gonna take a decade before I can probably call myself a Detroiter. So what I've been doing is a couple of things. One, working very closely with the mayor's office through their community outreach team, to make introductions. We're also kicking off in May a series of design charrettes (or town halls), where we invite members of the community in, we present our ideas, but we listen.
  • I've been told I should expect to do about 100 of these, because, obviously, the community is not monolithic, so there are all these different intersectionalities of community. We're leading them, but the mayor's office is helping out with logistics and coordination.
  • The other way is more ad hoc. We have a lot of organizations in Ann Arbor that do a lot of work with the community so I've been building relationships and getting advice and [getting introductions].
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