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Once Closed Detroit HBCU Makes Plans To Reopen, Giving Innovative Tuition-Free Opportunities For Design Students

Lewis College of Business had a long history in the Motor City before closing. But a footwear industry veteran is partnering with another well respected institution to resurrect it.

Most people don’t know that Detroit has been home to an HBCU for decades. Although it never had the flash and pageantry of Black institutions like Howard or Florida A&M, the school, Lewis College of Business, had always followed the tradition of educating Black students until it closed in 2013.

However, the school is undergoing a resurrection now that will allow it not only to regain its accreditation, but also to be reborn as a design school with the support of the city’s corporate infrastructure.

D’wayne Edwards, founder of PENSOLE Design Academy in Portland, who had also been design director for NIKE’s Jordan Brand up until 2011, is leading the charge to reestablish the school and offer new opportunities to ambitious students.

Founded in 1928, first as a secretarial school, Lewis College of Business later offered liberal arts, business administration, computer information systems, and office information systems. But it closed its doors after losing accreditation.

Edwards, 52, who spent years in footwear design, saw there were very few Black people in the field and wondered how the doors could be opened.

“I spent the majority of my career trying to figure out a way to make sure young Black folks were more aware of the possibilities of what they could do within the footwear industry outside of playing on a court or playing on a field or dancing on the stage,” he said. But he wanted to be able to reach potential students where they were.

At the same time, after the broad social focus after the death of George Floyd, corporations were looking for partners to work with that would connect them better with the Black community.

“We started getting a lot more requests from the brands that we work with, to work with HBCUs and find kids that either attended or attend HBCUs and bring them to our academy and teach them in a different way, the way companies usually hire from,” said Edwards.

Through a chance conversation with a former student who was living in Detroit, Edwards learned that the city was home to an HBCU. After some Google research, he found the realtor who sold the building that housed Lewis on the city’s West Side for the family of founder Viola T. Lewis. Once he connected with the family, he found they had tried to bring the school back since it closed, but couldn’t. So Edwards explained to them his vision of a new school that would enhance what they had done with business training, but also add the design element to it.

“So they were excited about the possibilities of not only continuing the business side of it, but also entering this new career path that other HBCUs do not have,” he said. The conversation led ultimately to plans to reopen as PENSOLE Lewis College of Business & Design.

Edwards said that although a design element will be added, his plan is for the school to retain its original identity as a place for business training as well, continuing the tradition that founder Violet T. Lewis intended.

She actually began the school in Indianapolis, but opened up a branch in Detroit in 1939, closing the original branch the next year, according to Detroit history website Detroiturbex.com. Students earned certificates in courses ranging from bookkeeping, stenography, and office management and went on to jobs in the auto industry and other local companies. In 1943, Lewis co-founded Gamma Phi Delta sorority there. By the 1980’s it had a peak of 550 students and was designated as an HBCU in 1987. However, lack of funding and management and other factors led to a loss of accreditation and an eventual closure of the school and shuttering of its campus.

With the restart though, Edwards is offering something different with the help of funding of corporate partners. “Our programs train the kids to work exactly the way they will work when they do get an opportunity to get into the workforce,” he said. “So we'll continue that. The difference is that all of our programming is funded by corporations, so the student doesn't have to pay anything to attend our college.”

Funding will come through various corporate partners including NIKE, the Jordan Brand, New Balance, Foot Locker and other footwear companies. In addition support is coming from companies like Target and organizations including The Gilbert Family Foundation, led by Dan and Jennifer Gilbert. Dan Gilbert is founder of Detroit-based Compuware Corp., and owns Rocket Mortgages and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But there are a few hoops to jump through before the planned reopening. First,the state of Michigan has to recognize the school. Even though it has a historical designation, it was never recognized after it was established in Detroit in 1939. So Edwards says he wants to get the state recognition. The next step is to reestablish accreditation, but while they work on that they can begin classes in partnership with Detroit’s College of Creative Studies (CCS), which offers similar programming to what Lewis will offer.

When classes begin, with the expected date of March 2022, it will be giving classes already as an accredited school. “A lot of what we teach can go under their accreditation, so we'll be able to leverage their accreditation while we're also working towards our own separate accreditation.” said Edwards.

Because Lewis will be tuition-free, technically it doesn’t need accreditation, but it will be sought anyway because the Higher Education Commission recommends it, Edwards says.

“We're honestly just looking at it for us to officially within the government structure be re-recognized as an HBCU here in the state of Michigan,” he explained. “But we're still already classified as an HBCU. You never lose that title.”

The College of Creative Studies is playing a key role in Lewis’ comeback because it is a well-established school which is globally recognized as a school of art and design. Dr. Don Tuski, president of the College of Creative Studies said he was instantly receptive to the idea of Edwards restarting Lewis within the CCS structure.

“It just made all the sense in the world to work with D’wayne to bring back Lewis as part of PENSOLE and then have CCS facilitate that with our accreditation,” Tuski said. “So it was really a positive thing right from the get go with me.”

He noted that students will have the chance to study with Pensole Lewis College of Business while earning Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees with CCS. “It's really a much more comprehensive approach to really attract a wider range of students,” Tuski said.

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For the first few years, instruction at the school will take place in Detroit’s Midtown area in the CCS facility, but Edwards says the plan is to move into its own building and wants to break ground next year. He estimates the cost will be in the neighborhood of $35 to $40 million.

The nearest HBCUs to Lewis will be Central State and Wilberforce Universities, both in WIlberforce, Ohio, more than three hours away from Detroit. Those and other HBCUs like Jackson State, Morehouse have long come to the Motor City to recruit students, but Edwards says he intends to compliment the other schools, not compete with them.

“I hope we can create a sister school relationship with as many HBCUs who want to be a part of it,” he says. “So what I want to do is create a sister School Network within other HBCUs where HBCUs can send their students to Detroit for a semester or two free of charge, like the kids still pay their tuition at their existing school, but they come to us obviously free. If when we're able to create that now we're given that kid who's in Alabama, who's never been anywhere past Atlanta, now you can come to the Midwest.”

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