John Schweitzer's Retirement

By John Schweitzer, Professor, CCED 

As my career at MSU is now coming to an end, I remember enrolling here as a PhD graduate student in educational psychology in fall of 1966. In the late 1960s many white students on MSU’s campus were active in protesting the Vietnam War, and the few Black students were concerned about the lack of faculty and students of color at the university.  

During the summer after my first year at MSU, the simmering civil rights situation in Detroit exploded in days of rioting, leaving 43 persons dead and millions of dollars in damages. MSU president John Hannah appointed a Committee of Sixteen senior faculty members to recommend how MSU’s land grant mission could be applied to help remedy the deteriorating urban crises throughout the nation. 

Launching the Center for Urban Affairs  

As a result of the Committee of Sixteen’s recommendation, a Center for Urban Affairs (CUA) at MSU was established to conduct academic functions, carry out research, and implement action programs in urban areas throughout the state.  

As I was completing my Ph.D. in 1969, I interviewed for a job and was hired as a research specialist to work with the new director of CUA, Dr. Robert Green. He was planning a speech for new faculty members at MSU and wanted to compare the work MSU was doing to help development in African countries with the work not being done by the university in Michigan cities. I was asked to gather research data comparing conditions in poor African countries with inner city life in Michigan cities.  

I knew that infant mortality rates were considered an adequate measure of the overall health of the society. I found an application sent to the federal government for model cities’ funds for the City of Lansing. In this report the infant mortality rates in some parts of Lansing seemed very high. They were twice as high as infant mortality rates in African countries that Michigan State was helping. Dr. Green used these statistics in the welcoming speech that he gave to new University faculty members, one of whom was me. He argued that the University should be extending its resources to needy urban areas in the same way that it was helping developing countries around the world.  

The finding that health conditions in parts of Lansing were worse than in some poor African countries was picked up by the local press, and the mayor of Lansing was not happy. Dr. Green’s statistics were challenged, and I had to justify them. We were called to a meeting in the mayor’s office. I pointed out to the mayor that the Lansing infant mortality rate data came from the official model cities application submitted by Lansing to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. His only response was that sometimes applications are written to make things seem worse than they are. 

I learned several things from this experience. Data can be compiled and presented in a way that attracts the attention of powerful people, and the same data can be used in different ways to promote change. This was my first experience using research to accomplish a desired outcome, but it was only the first of a variety of opportunities to engage in action research at MSU. Dr. Green was an activist for social change, and he understood the land grant philosophy. Working at CUA involved using social science research methodologies to advocate for desired societal change. 

Urban education and the achievement gap. In the 1970s our nation’s cities were still attempting to implement the Brown v Board of Education order of the United States Supreme Court to desegregate schools. A great deal of my work at that time was related to studying the reasons for the achievement gap between Black and White students in Michigan cities. Research was used to demonstrate the unequal inputs and outcomes of segregated minority schools. I had the experience of testifying in the Bradley v Milliken case, in which Judge Roth found that Detroit schools were racially segregated. He ordered them to be integrated with over 40 of the surrounding suburban school districts, but the case was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

CUA partnership with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Another opportunity for CUA to conduct action research occurred when Coleman Young was elected the first African American mayor of Detroit. He initiated an innovative community policing program, establishing mini-police stations in each of the city’s 12 precincts. As a result of his personal relationship with Mayor Young, Dr. Green was able to gain a grant to evaluate the program. The valuation team included me, a sociologist, a political scientist, and a community psychologist. Working with this multidisciplinary team, I learned how there could be disagreement among team members on appropriate research methodologies and how the overall work was strengthened. Among our findings was that the mini-police stations tended to slightly reduce crime in the areas surrounding the stations, but the attitudes of police and community members were significantly improved on both sides. 

Using applied research to counter racial bias in the courtroom. Another interesting applied research experience that I had involved working with the defense in the criminal trial of an African American man accused of attempted murder. The incident took place in a bar in Shiawassee County, home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, having a 99 percent white population and houses with restricted racial covenants. The defense lawyer came to CUA seeking research data that might show evidence of bias among potential jurors so that he could seek a change of venue to a place where the jury might include persons of color. I designed an experiment to compare views of potential Shiawassee County jurors when the defendant was Black or White. Based on the results I was able to take the stand in the courtroom and argue for a change of venue. Although the judge denied the change, he bent over backwards to ensure a fair trial and the defendant was acquitted. 

Working with communities to address urban problems. In 1985 CUA was approached by an MSU extension educator who was concerned by the deteriorating conditions in Benton Harbor. As acting director of CUA, I obtained a small grant from the Whirlpool Foundation whose national headquarters were located in Benton Harbor. CUA coordinated a University wide effort to work with the citizens of Benton Harbor in an application of the land grant philosophy. The initiative began with 30 MSU faculty members taking a day bus trip to the city to meet with community members to develop plans for the University and community to work together to address urban problems. Groups were formed in areas such as education, safety, economic development, neighborhoods, urban planning and others. Several dozen projects were planned in a variety of areas and many projects were carried out. Whirlpool funded a second year of the project at a much higher funding level and activities continued to flourish. However, in 1987, a new CEO of Whirlpool was exploring moving the corporation from Benton Harbor. That fact and local politics resulted in Whirlpool declining to fund the third year of the project.  

Researching Sense of Community in Urban Neighborhoods 

Communities in urban neighborhoods became the focus of my research interests in the 1990s. CUA got a grant from the Mott Foundation to evaluate the projects funded by Gov. James Blanchard’s Neighborhood Builders Alliance. The Alliance provided financial support to various neighborhood improvement activities such as abandoned home acquisition, housing renovation and/or demolition, neighborhood cleanup, crime prevention, and any other appropriate activities to assist in addressing neighborhood problems and strengthening neighborhoods. This experience allowed me to study a wide range of exciting efforts to improve the quality of life in urban neighborhoods. I began to realize the wide range of variables that impact the quality of life in urban neighborhoods, and I became interested in studying how people felt about their neighborhoods.  

I began to conduct survey research on how urban residents felt about their neighborhood. When asking about life in their neighborhood, it became clear to me that residents have different views of what constitutes their neighborhood and how far it extends. I decided to study micro-neighborhoods which are represented by a face block consisting of the houses on both sides of the street between the cross streets.  

I learned that when residents speak of their neighborhoods they typically just describe the group of houses they can see from their front steps. The urban face block became an important unit for me to study. I found that even in the same neighborhood, blocks vary significantly. On some blocks people don’t even recognize their neighbors and on other blocks they share house keys with each other. I found that the best variable explaining block differences was the level of sense of community that did or did not exist on the blocks. I and my students have found that neighborhood block level sense of community is related to a wide range of pro-social behaviors including recycling, giving blood, feelings of safety, health, and school success.  

In 1995 Robert Putnam published a book titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. I realized that the sense of community that I was studying was a form of social capital. At the block level neighbors were united by bonding social capital which allowed them to work together to address problems, and bridging social capital united them with the rest of the neighborhood. A surprising finding from my research was that people who live on high sense of community blocks are more likely to participate in their neighborhood association. 

Creating Community Through Technology 

In 1990 I had the opportunity evaluate a project between Central Michigan University and the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. This project was called Creating Community through Technology. The idea was to achieve the benefits of classroom integration by linking courses through technology at the predominantly White and predominantly Black universities. Much time was spent integrating the university calendars, matching course curricula of four basic courses, and identifying methods of course evaluation. Classes met virtually and were team taught by faculty member at each campus. A major finding of this project was the need to recognize the steep learning curve occurring when introducing students and faculty to new technology. 

New Directions at University Outreach and Engagement  

In 2008 CUA was renamed to become the Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED), and we became part of University Outreach and Engagement at MSU. This move led my research into two new directions. 

Collaboration with Liz Lehrman Dance Exchange. A colleague introduced me to MacArthur Fellow Liz Lehrman, who had seen similarities in the methods used in producing works of art and conducting basic science. Her dance company, Liz Lehrman Dance Exchange, had produced a unique attempt to combine dance and the science of origins called The Matter of Origins. Liz hoped that attending a dance performance and then discussing it could increase public knowledge of and appreciation for science. The Matter of Origins was performed at seven sites around the country, and the National Science Foundation hired me to evaluate its impact on public attitudes toward science. It was challenging coming up with a research design at each performance site that would give me quantitative and qualitative measures of the impact of the performance followed by discussion. An interesting finding was that this method was particularly impactful on attitudes of women and people of color.  

Studying faculty involvement in outreach activities. Another new area of research for me was the study of involvement of MSU faculty in outreach activities. The university had recently revised its Promotion and Tenure Form so that publicly engaged scholarship activities were measured throughout the form and not just in one single section. We selected all promotion and tenure forms over a six year period and documented all publicly engaged scholarship relating to research, teaching, and public service. It was fascinating seeing the ways that faculty members in different disciplines across the university were able to use their professional knowledge to engage the public in ways that advanced their scholarship.  

Growing and Moving On  

These last few years at CCED have been a time of growth and expansion. There are many projects that I will continue to follow like Women Building Tanzania, the study of domicology, REI, and the proposed Circular Economy Institute. It’s been a real honor to be associated with the creative activities of CCED. I have learned so much from my colleagues, Rex LaMore and John Melcher, and the example they set as community developers, par excellence. And finally, how could I not mention the weekly Tuesday morning meetings where we learned from each other how to use research to promote change and from which we’ve sent hundreds of undergraduate students out to practice community development throughout the world.  

For more information contact John Schweitzer, Professor, School of Planning, Design, and Construction,  


NOTE: The many community partners, students and academic colleagues who have had the great honor to work with Dr. Schweitzer throughout his distinguished career at MSU wish to offer their heartfelt thanks for his wise support and guidance. We wish him the best in his retirement and thank him for his dedication to creating a more just and equitable world.  

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