Alumnus and University of Detroit Mercy President Antoine Garibaldi makes his mark
By Kate Lucas, Photo By Bryan Mitchell
"From the very beginning, Dr. Garibaldi saw the needs and the opportunity and the hunger of the neighboring community to be revitalized. He wanted to be a catalyst." - Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson
If you were to plot Antoine Garibaldi's career on a graph, you would find a clear through line from his days as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota to his current position as president of the University of Detroit Mercy. Garibaldi (Ph.D. '76), a native of New Orleans, has devoted more than four decades of service to urban communities facing major challenges. A scholar and leader, he's held an Education Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C.; worked for the National Institute of Education, where he completed research for the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk; and served in leadership roles at Xavier University of Louisiana, Howard University in Washington, D.C., and as a senior fellow at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton before being named president of Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2001.
But Garibaldi is clear about what he calls his "best and most important job," held some 40 years ago when he was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Minnesota: director and school psychologist at the St. Paul Urban League Street Academy. A collaboration between the College of Education (now the College of Education and Human Development) and the St. Paul Urban League, the school was one of 15 street academies in the nation, part of a growing movement in alternative education. The goal was to make sure children with school suspensions or expulsions could graduate. Or, as Garibaldi says, to work with students who "might have been given up on."
Garibaldi, who received an Outstanding Alumni Award from the University of Minnesota in 2006, brushes aside credit for his penchant to serve in stressed communities. He laughs and says simply, "the Lord works in mysterious ways." When pressed, he points to the commitment to service that he learned early on, in part through his work with the Street Academy. He sees its influence in his work even today, and relishes the challenges of his current post at Detroit Mercy, where he is the Catholic institution's first lay president and-as he was at Gannon-the first African American president.
"I never hesitated because it was Detroit. It's a great time for the city-it's a nice challenging opportunity. Things are changing, and we're making a difference," says Garibaldi. Founded 139 years ago by the Jesuits and Sisters of Mercy, the 5,000-student Catholic institution is located in Northwest Detroit and has a strong emphasis on career preparation and community service, including a nationally recognized cooperative education program that places hundreds of undergrads across various fields in career-related part-time salaried positions each year.
The university has established a vigorous presence in the local community during Garibaldi's tenure. In his first few months on the job, he began meeting with neighborhood residents and several community organizations in Northwest Detroit to hear their expectations of Detroit Mercy and discuss how the university might fulfill them. "In a city like Detroit, with bankruptcy, declining population, and shrinking public school attendance, we have a responsibility to work closely with the local community, and everyone-students, faculty, staff, alumni-is involved in the revitalization efforts," he says.
In addition to meeting with community organizations, Garibaldi also reached out to education leaders, from community colleges to K-12, as well as foundations and local government officials. "I believe that asking individuals to work together allows everyone to create opportunities that are beneficial to the community and to the institutions within them." That outreach has paid off in partnerships with foundations such as Kresge, Ford, and Kellogg, and The Live6 Alliance, a nonprofit economic development organization that coordinates and promotes revitalization efforts in the neighborhood around the university.
"From the very beginning, Dr. Garibaldi saw the needs and the opportunity and the hunger of the neighboring community to be revitalized. He wanted to be a catalyst," says Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation and former deputy mayor of Minneapolis, when announcing the foundation's support of the alliance. The Live6 Alliance "has all been driven by Dr. Garibaldi's sense of urgency, his decency, and his commitment to making this a better place to be."
"The neighborhood around the campus wouldn't be what it is today without the school. The university is a real anchoring institution," Garibaldi says. He points to Detroit Mercy's many community outreach activities, including helping local high school students prepare for college entrance tests; giving middle school pep bands opportunities to play at sporting events; and providing local residents with reduced cost or pro bono services at the dental, law, and architecture schools, and in psychology and business. He's put considerable thought and effort into making the campus accessible and welcoming, and it seems to be making a difference: He has heard people say they've been on the Detroit Mercy campus more in the last two years than in the previous 20.
And he's never left behind his action-oriented research and writing about issues facing students like those at the Street Academy. In 2014, he published an article in Howard University's Journal of Negro Education on the expanding gender gap in higher education-boys and men are falling behind in student performance, high school graduation, and college enrollment. The gap has worsened considerably for African American males over the past 25 years. Garibaldi shared a number of recommendations to address the issue, such as expanding precollege programs like Upward Bound; using college students as mentors for high school students; and increasing the emphasis on college preparation while lessening the focus on athletic success starting in grade school. About his research, Garibaldi says, "These aren't the 'ain't it awful' kind of reports, but instead, 'let's solve these problems.'"
Last spring, Garibaldi wrote an editorial for the Detroit Free Press that continued his work championing the students who "might have been given up on." It was inspired by the growing challenges in the Detroit Public School system, including plummeting enrollments, poor student performance, and budget shortfalls, despite the historically outstanding education offered by the district. "We really need solutions, which are not going to happen if we assume there isn't a problem. Some people say [when they hear about the issues,] "I had no idea,'" he says.
Detroit's challenges, Garibaldi says, were strikingly familiar to those facing urban schools 30 years ago, so he referred to his 1987 research in New Orleans, which found considerably higher aspirations and expectations among black male students and their parents as compared to their teachers: 60 percent of students said their teachers should push them harder, and 80 percent of parents expected their sons to attend college-yet a full 60 percent of teachers said they did not expect their black male students to attend college.
Garibaldi called for a concerted effort among parents, teachers, and the community of Detroit to reenvision Detroit Public Schools and urged the community to "keep the focus on the children." Clearly, Garibaldi has kept this focus throughout his career, and he seems well suited to call others back, too.