New leaders take the helm at Dearborn’s higher learning institutions

Though they are heading two very different organizations, Domenico Grasso and Russell Kavalhuna have a lot in common. They’re both first-generation Americans, new to Dearborn and are the sixth people to lead their higher education institutions -- Grasso as the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s (UMD) chancellor, and Kavalhuna as the president of Henry Ford College (HFC).

The two had yet to meet at press time but each says they’re excited to explore ways that the two schools can work together.

“Our bridge between the two institutions is long and healthy,” says  Kavalhuna, citing transfer agreements, some public safety services and joint programs for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service each January. “I have been pleased and impressed by how U-M Dearborn works as good neighbors.”

“We have two different missions, but I see a lot of opportunities for us to work together collaboratively," says Grasso.

Singing the praises of community college

Kavalhuna, 39, joined HFC on July 2 after a stint as executive director of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation. A former federal prosecutor and a commercial airline pilot, Kavalhuna deflects praise for his diverse accomplishments, calling himself “a guy who can’t keep a job.”

Henry Ford, which is entering its 80th year, is seeking funding to update and expand its technology building, which is more than 50 years old. Kavalhuna hopes half of the $14-million project will come from Gov. Rick Snyder’s Marshall Plan, which will invest $100 million in Michigan’s talent and education system. HFC hosted about 100 business and educational leaders at a Marshall Plan workshop on July 26.

Michigan is projected to have more than 811,000 job openings through 2024 in fields facing a critical talent shortage. The greatest demand for workers will be information technology and computer science, manufacturing, health care and other business and professional trades careers, says the governor’s office. HFC is uniquely positioned to help fill many of those jobs, Kavalhuna says.

“We are at the cusp of being the answer to what needs to be delivered right now. That is not just happy talk. We can’t say it loudly or clearly enough -- we want to be the gem in Michigan that does the kind of education to answer the unmet needs of these career paths.

Russel Kavalhuna, Photo by Doug Coombe.

“Many times, people look at a community college and draw the false dichotomy that it is just a springboard [to a four-year college],” Kavalhuna added. “That is true maybe for a small majority of our students, but we take very seriously those who only need a certificate program or associate’s degree for what they want to achieve in life.”

Community colleges, he says, offer “frankly unbeatable prices for the return on investment” and are at the “forefront of public institutions that can serve society in moving people from high school to well-paying jobs.”

That philosophy was illustrated last semester at HFC with “Tiny Home for Tiny Tots,” a joint project of the school’s architecture/construction technology (ACT), energy technology and interior design programs. The real estate firm RE/MAX commissioned the fully functional 202-square-foot structure as a fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and it fetched more than $47,000 at auction in July.

“This is the manifestation of the value of our education,” Kavalhuna says. “We are teaching people how to install a high-end floor, how to hang cabinets, plumb an area, learn project management.”

Another initiative Kavalhuna says he’s happy to carry on is the Integrated Energy Master Plan, which is designed to reduce energy consumption by 60 percent and water by 40 percent by 2039. “It will probably cost us north of $20 million by 2039 but we hope to draw down that cost by the synergy of getting new programs in green technologies,” he says.

Community college, Kavalhuna says, is “the gateway for the American dream.”

“My father came from Brazil and lived in a dirt-floor basement. His one chance for higher education was the community college in his Battle Creek neighborhood. My mother is the daughter of a factory worker and they met at that community college.”

Kavalhuna says he’s enjoying Southeastern Michigan. “I made a conscious decision to move my family to Dearborn,” he says. “Like its college, it has a unique lens of the diversity of thought and people and unparalleled support for education and its transformational value.”

Fresh eyes at a ‘Backyard Gem’

The son of Italian immigrants, Grasso was a major in the U.S. Army before embarking on an academic career. He’s worked at Smith College, the University of Vermont and, most recently, was an engineering professor at the University of Delaware, where he also served as provost. He received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from U-M.

“I knew of the strengths of the university and am a little surprised at the strengths I continue to uncover in terms of faculty and expertise,” Grasso says of his short tenure, which began August 1. “This institution can consider itself to be fully transformational in the lives of its students. They see this as a gateway to a different life and we want to be a part of helping them realize that.”

Grasso, 62, says he’s excited about the ongoing construction of the Engineering Laboratory Building (ELB), a $90-million project that will open in fall 2020. The facility will include dedicated labs that replicate industry environments; offer faculty additional research opportunities in mechanical and electrical technologies, mechatronics, robotics, and other emerging fields; and allow the school to double the number of engineering graduates over time. A third of the funding is coming from the state of Michigan.Domenico Grasso. Photo by Doug Coombe.

“It’s very forward thinking, which really personifies what this university is really all about,” Grasso says.

He’s also making a top priority of the Student Success Collaborative, which tracks student progress and offer interventions to keep under-performers from falling through the cracks.

“Our six-year graduation rate is 54 percent, which is respectable compared to many schools, but a far cry from where we want it to be, which is in the 80s,” says Grasso, noting that the University of Delaware has had “great success” with a similar program.

He also plans to promote the school’s Talent Gateway, an initiative unique to the school that encourages students to explore career opportunities and develop leadership skills with real-world experiences.

“The majority of students have not taken advantage of it and we plan to push it,” he says. “It’s a big differentiator when people want to hire individuals.”

After recently meeting with Mayor John O'Reilly Jr., Grasso says he sees “Smart City” initiatives – in which different types of electronic data collection sensors help manage assets and resources more efficiently -- between the university and the city of Dearborn as “an exciting possibility.”

Grasso says he’s enjoying rediscovering the Dearborn area with his wife, Susan Hull Grasso, who grew up in Troy.

“I stole her away in 1987 and now she’s showing me the ropes,” he says. “I have loved this part of Michigan and am enjoying being back. The university is a gem in the region that I don’t think has been fully appreciated.”

Does Grasso think that the school has been taken a bit for granted?

“We've been awfully taken for granted,” he says. “Familiarity can breed contempt, and oftentimes people don’t appreciate what they’ve had. This is a terrific, terrific university and I want everyone to know what’s in their backyard.”

Joyce Wiswell is a Royal Oak-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and platforms.



Signup for Email Alerts