No Critical Mass Challenging Detroit’s Leaders Fuels Marginalization

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the President and Director of Research at The PuLSE Institute, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. This column is part of our series on race and democracy produced by The Douglass Project of the Institute. The Project named after consequential abolitionist and black freedom fighter Frederick Douglass, produces evidence-based analysis, policy initiatives and proposals that are strategically aligned with the principal pillars of race, equity, and democracy. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the Editor-Chief of The PuLSE Institute at

“A true and worthy ideal frees and uplifts a people; a false ideal imprisons and lowers.” –W.E.B. Du Bois

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq

In an announcement this week, Wayne State University unveiled a new “tuition-free” program that attracted gushing media attention and earned the presence and glowing endorsements of Detroit’s top leaders, Mayor Mike Duggan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The announcement framed the program as a life changer and an equalizer to gaining access to a college degree.

However, this idea is not a new concept in the college industry and is actually gaining steam around the nation. Furthermore, while no one in the media has analyzed the specifics of the program or reported beyond what has been packaged to the press, critics of this model exist across the country, and rightfully so due to the misleading appeal that college will be free.

In this case, as in many others, free isn’t really free. This program does not mean the school will charge no tuition to earn a degree (the literal definition of tuition free). Additionally, other costs necessary for attending college will not be covered, such as books, housing, and transportation. Most significantly, specific requirements must be met to earn and maintain this “tuition-free” status, including the requirement that students must exhaust all funds available through state and federal aid first, before Wayne State finally steps in to pick up the tab for the remainder.

It is essentially misleading to promote this program as “free tuition,” when the university is not picking up the tab upfront, will not pay anything until other financial sources are exhausted first, and will leave students on the hook for funding other valuable college necessities. Also, the announcement doesn’t necessarily lift people out of poverty, as many similarly designed programs tend to benefit more middle and upper class income families rather than the low income families who are in need of more resources.

Finally, while this program allegedly addresses college affordability and accessibility, it fails to combat not just the ever-increasing rise of tuition, but the need for such equity in college admissions due to decades of discrimination against blacks and other minority groups who were historically shut down from pursuit of higher education.

With this announcement, Wayne State chose to be a pawn in this particular political chess game, but it very well could have been any other university in the region. However, the mainstream media willingly provided uplifting reports of the program while failing to analyze any potential shortcomings, which explains the pervasive media skepticism by the public.

Due to this lack of critique and shameless self-appointed role of cheer team by the likes of mainstream media, we are left to believe that any announcement made by political leaders like Mayor Duggan and Governor Whitmer is flawless and exactly what is needed to heal the wounds of economic injustice in Detroit.

Yet, by peeling back just one layer of the proverbial onion, one can see that these announcements are simply public relations charades with no genuine, long-term, sustainable policy solutions to level economic playing fields or improve the quality of life in our communities. Even worse, many of these announcements are actually more detrimental than the so-called benefits they are touted to bring.

One need look no further than Governor Whitmer’s self-imploding educational minefield of Benton Harbor. The governor, less than six months in to her first term, traveled to the small, poor, and majority black city of Benton Harbor to announce that she needed to close the community’s only high school to avoid the only other solution of emergency management, the likes of which devastated other poor black school districts like Detroit and Highland Park. Whitmer stood tall in defense of her ultimatum, assured that her solution to close the schools and bus students to neighboring white communities was the best option for the community.

Not only was this demonstration a grand failure of compassionate leadership, it was also steeped in liberal racism and egregious contradictions of Whitmer’s campaign promises and branding as an education advocate. Most significantly, however, was the fact that in spite of her defiant efforts to close the school, she never had the legal authority to execute such a decision, according to the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Furthermore, to this date, Governor Whitmer has not delivered any viable solution to the poverty plaguing Detroit, which she promised time and time again on the campaign trail. Most significantly, she has failed to announce a poverty secretary, even though she insisted that she was “committed to ensuring poverty issues are represented at the cabinet level” in her administration. 

Regarding the Wayne State tuition pledge, it was no surprise to see Mayor Duggan endorsing this as a much needed feel good story for his administration just days after a blistering investigation found lack of government transparency with the deletion of city emails and preferential treatment for the controversial Make Your Date program.

The Wayne State announcement was perfectly timed as yet another public relations tour to pacify critics and lull the public into forgetting about one more accusation of corruption leveled against the Duggan administration, joining the disastrous Detroit Land Bank Authority demolition investigation and the famed Motor City Match Program. This program, touted as an economic equalizer for small businesses, is now under federal review by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for findings that suggested the program was not adequately targeting low- to moderate income areas. However, following the lead of the media in Detroit, we are supposed to be happy that funds are even made available, and blindly believe that no other option could be better.

This deadly combination is exactly what allows Detroit and similar communities to wallow in economic disparity- disingenuous leadership and complicit third parties, including mainstream media and civic organizations. Too often, the plans presented to Detroiters are nothing more than piecemeal prescriptions and placations to sensitivities. And worst of all, no massive challenge is presented to counter such insincere tactics. Other elected officials have abdicated their duties to speak up and serve in the interest of their constituents, while numerous prominent churches and civic organizations, many of which serve the neediest populations and claim to fight for justice, have stayed absolutely silent amidst the economic imbalance taking place in Detroit.

The free tuition façade is larger than Wayne State University or whatever the next organization will be to take its place as a figurehead for complacency politics. The alleged recovery taking place in Detroit is only as strong as the narrative pushing its reality. Without basic critique and strong push to counter the prevailing narrative, these illusorily beneficial programs and political decisions will continue to deceive and devastate Detroit, widening the economic gap between the rich and the poor. The time was yesterday to demand truth and accountability from media reporting and elected officials and to demand courage and leadership from civic organizations. The good news is as long as there is a tomorrow, the opportunity remains to demand better.

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