Dr. Antoine Garibaldi arrived at the University of Detroit Mercy in 2011 with a plan to turn around sharp enrollment declines at Michigan’s oldest and largest Catholic university. Garibaldi, the first lay person to preside over the university, focused on burnishing the history, profile, and potential of an institution founded in 1877 — and abutting one of the Motor City’s most hardscrabble neighborhoods. Garibaldi traces the devolution of that area flanking University District, noted still for its 1920s mansions of stone and marble, to 1967. That year, inflamed by myriad forms of racism, Blacks set fire to sections of their city. That rebellion captured headlines worldwide.
In turn, whites fled. As years passed, the exodus they sparked also counted some well-off Blacks. Catholic schools that once put kids in the pipeline to Detroit Mercy — the result of a 1990 merger of the University of Detroit and Mercy College — relocated from the city to its suburbs.
“A lot [of] alumni said, ‘You should move,’” says Garibaldi, recounting entreaties made at the time to the campus’ heavily Jesuit and Sisters of Mercy administrators and faculty. “They said, ‘No, we are not going anywhere. This is where we started. This is our community.’”
Today, that resonates as a righteous defiance for Garibaldi, 70. He has sought to reaffirm what those leaders of Detroit Mercy — where 95 percent of the current 6,000 student enrollees get some amount of financial aid — asserted back then.
Garibaldi has spearheaded what, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was the campus’ biggest freshman enrollment in a dozen years. That owed partly to what he refers to as “tuition reset” in 2018, when the price tag fell 31 percent, from $41,000 to $28,000 per academic year.
“It was a bold decision,” Garibaldi says. “The conversation we are having nationally about the amount of loans students are carrying is a serious topic. The amount of money for a master’s degree — not to mention a Ph.D. — is a serious issue. We cannot continue to price ourselves out of the market.”
Garibaldi has racked up other wins. Lauded by, among others, members of Detroit’s corporate and grassroots communities, those achievements include:
• Raking in $114.6 million for the Campaign for University of Detroit Mercy, exceeding its original goal of $100 million a year ahead of its scheduled end-date.
• Tripling the university’s endowment, which boasted $89 million in 2021.
• Being one of three campuses tapped for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Educational Fundraising Award for Overall Performance.
• Spending more than $51.5 million on new construction and facility updates across its three Detroit campuses; and buying a fourth campus 30 miles away in Novi, Mich.
• Erecting a 40,000-square-foot student fitness center, built in 2012, as the first new building on the McNichols campus in 42 years.
• Erecting a $3 million Detroit Mercy College of Health Professions annex, built in 2017, that led to a doubling of enrollment in the university’s program for physician assistants, one of the health care occupations that has surged in recent years.
• Creating and, with The Kresge Foundation, co-founding the Live6 Alliance, an economic development organization in Northwest Detroit encompassing sections of the city’s iconic Livernois Avenue and Six Mile Road.
“The before and after pictures really tell you what it looks like, then, and what it looks like today,” says Garibaldi, also chairman of the Live6 Alliance’s board of directors. “You cannot recruit students unless you have a beautiful campus and surrounding neighborhood. You cannot bring back alumni if they think they’re in a part of town that’s not safe to go to.”
Garibaldi notes Detroit Mercy’s collaborations with businesses, the Detroit Police Department, and others whose input the university invited and needed.
Neighbors of the campus exercise on its outdoor track, access its library, and host non-college related gatherings on campus. “Place-making is a critical part of this,” says Garibaldi, adding that Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture has helped blueprint Live6 projects. “The university’s involvement in this is to be a conduit for the people of this neighborhood. We are not trying to take control of anything.”
Bringing a vision to fruition
That is signature Garibaldi style in the view of Dr. Loren Blanchard, president of the University of Houston-Downtown. Blanchard met Garibaldi while attending Xavier University and still considers him a mentor. “He’s always had one foot planted in the present and the other in the future. He’s had this keen eye, working with the campus and the community to arrive at a particular vision ...,” says Blanchard. “He brings that vision to fruition.”
Says Dr. Percy Pierre, former president of Prairie View A&M University and now a University of Maryland endowed professor of engineering: “Antoine is very smart, very personable. He loves people.” Pierre is a friend and classmate of Garibaldi’s older siblings, who watched him grow up in New Orleans. “He has a strong commitment to doing good for society, and the talent to get it done,” says Pierre, also former acting secretary of the U.S. Army.
Garibaldi’s sense of community and of his place in it extend back to his boyhood. His mother was a homemaker. His father was a longshoreman and railroad porter in a lineage begun when rail magnate George Pullman hired former slaves to serve whites in sleeper cars of a segregated transit system.
Several of Garibaldi’s eight siblings were classroom teachers. His own history as a classroom teacher sometimes gets obscured, Garibaldi says, by his seemingly higher profile work. He co-authored the groundbreaking “A Nation at Risk” U.S. Department of Education report of 1983 and co-edited “The Education of African Americans. He authored “The Decline of Teacher Production in Louisiana,” “Teacher Recruitment and Retention With a Special Focus on Minority Teachers,” “Black Colleges and Universities: Challenges for the Future,” and “Educating and Motivating African American Males to Succeed.”
That last tome resulted from his particular concerns for the well-being of Black boys and men. Some of those challenges were acutely apparent while Garibaldi, then a full-time University of Minnesota graduate student in educational psychology, did double duty as principal of a National Urban League Street Academy in St. Paul, Minn., starting in 1973. He had earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Howard University.
“We had a serious crisis in our country, not too dissimilar from today,” says Garibaldi. “The Street Academy was one of the best experiences of my life. Here was an opportunity to work with young men and women, many of whom were quite bright. Their suspensions and expulsions were not because they were doing bad things but because they were not being challenged and not being supported by their families.”
While a Howard student, Garibaldi volunteered at a Catholic school that had no male teachers. Instructing fifth-grade social studies there was his first job after graduation. (He’d transferred to Howard from seminary at Catholic University, where he’d enrolled at 14.)
Having such frontline experience serves him, even now.
“I go to the schools and meet the principals,” says Garibaldi. “When they find out I’ve taught and prepared teachers for the classroom, they understand that I know what it takes to create a good student.”
What’s happening in the nation’s classrooms that are often stratified by race, income, region, and so on likely will be among the upcoming topics of exploration and public dialogue for Garibaldi, whose research has been published in several peer-reviewed journals over the years.
The next chapter
Garibaldi is departing the last among several universities, including Xavier in his hometown and Gannon in Erie, Pa. But he’s not fully retiring.
“I have a long list of what I want to do,” says Garibaldi. First among them is the July 1 start of penning a memoir of the last 21 years on the job at Detroit Mercy and, before that, Gannon. He also taught classroom management at Xavier, where he was vice president for academic affairs.
“I want to write about it from a leadership perspective,” he says. “I want to tell people how I brought these institutions back to financial health.”
He wants to infuse that guidebook with biography, including how attending St. Joan of Arc in his hometown, growing up in the church and enrolling in seminary fed his appetite for justice in education but also other spheres.
He’ll visit New Orleans from time to time, but remain a Detroit resident. Garibaldi is the newly named president emeritus of Detroit Mercy, where he’ll teach educational psychology. He’ll juggle duties as a trustee for nine Detroit organizations, including Brother Rice High School; and for nine educational entities, including Georgetown University, Minnesota’s St. Thomas University and Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities.
“I am not going to stop," he says.