Michigan’s only HBCU closed in 2013. It is now reopening

In March 2022, history will be written. Lewis College in Detroit, a historically black college that closed in 2013 under financial pressure, will reopen its doors to students. This is the first time that a historically black college or university (HBCU) has reopened after closing.

And not only will classes resume; they will be free, as will room and board.

The newly opened school is called the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. The “Pensole” comes from Pensole Design Academy, a nonprofit design program in Portland, Ore. that focuses on teaching the skills of underrepresented students for the shoe design industry. Pensole was founded in 2010 by D’Wayne Edwards, former design director at Nike.

D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Pensole Design Academy in Portland, Oregon [Photo: courtesy Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design]

Pensole Design Academy is not specifically a college. It’s more like a business school. Edwards uses companies to sponsor programs to teach skills that are often lacking in generalist design students. In turn, major shoe and clothing companies, including Nike, Adidas and Levi’s, will offer internships, and sometimes jobs, to these students.

Pensole is one of the few institutions actively training young students of color to correct an imbalance in the design industry, where only 4.8% of employees are black. “How do you get more diverse employees? Edwards asks. “On the design side, it’s difficult to do. Over the past decade, Pensole has graduated 2,000 students – 95% of whom are “racially and ethnically diverse” – and 500 have received internships or jobs through the program.

Edwards argues that the companies he works with really want to hire more diverse designers, but they struggle to find them because design has been a white industry since the early days of education. Edwards himself did a study on the state of diversity in design schools three years ago. He found that black students made up only 9% of enrollment at 96 art and design schools in the United States. Half of these students were interested in art rather than design. And half dropped out by their junior year (which is statistically standard for black students in higher education). When it all blew up, Edwards calculated that about 1% of students ended up in the pipeline for design jobs.

[Photo: Marlene Ann Brill/Wiki Commons]

HBCUs could help fill this gap, but Edwards notes that less than 10% of the roughly 100 existing HBCUs offer design courses. The importance of HBCUs to black professionals in America cannot be overstated. As an educational association The Hechinger report outlines, only 3% of all colleges are HBCUs. But these organizations produce 27% of black STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates, 50% of all black teachers and doctors, and 80% of black judges in the United States. Logic dictates that the same would be true of design if design programs were to become more popular in HBCUs. But HBCUs have their own problem: they shut down. Up to 20 having closed since the 1930s; six having closed over the past two decades.

Edwards has secured funding to reopen Lewis College, and he has a plan that will allow his Pensole business school model to align with two- and four-year college degrees. The reopening is made possible thanks to contributions from the Gilbert Family Foundation and Target (of which Pensole Lewis is not disclosing the sum). Its courses will include certification courses, which will be funded by corporate donors. A company like Nike, for example, could fund a course in a design topic like CMF (color, material, and finish), or it could fund a business-focused course like product marketing.

[Photo: courtesy Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design]

“Instead of a governing body saying we’re teaching the right thing, a company is telling us we’re teaching the right thing,” Edwards says. Companies give hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize higher education each year, but Pensole’s model of skills and courses is unprecedented in the design industry. The model gives companies more control over education, but it also produces graduates who have the skills employers are looking for. These certificates can be earned in a matter of weeks or months, and they can add up as students gain more skills. Edwards imagines that in the future these certificates could even constitute an official associate’s degree.

In the meantime, Pensole Lewis will allow students to accumulate college credit if they choose, through a partnership with Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS). This means that a design or business course taken at Pensole Lewis will transfer in hours to CCS. This is a crucial part of the program, allowing students to freely delve into design while earning a more formal associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Pensole Lewis still needs the State of Michigan to reinstate its accreditation before the opening. Assuming this works, Pensole Lewis plans to host 300 students in the first year. “It will only increase each year thereafter,” says Edwards. Open enrollment is expected to begin in December for courses starting March 2022, with enterprise class partners yet to be announced.

For now, all Edwards will say is that Pensole Lewis will be teaching much more than shoe and clothing design. To learn more, you can subscribe to receive updates on the Pensole Lewis website.

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