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Michigan’s only HBCU closed in 2013. Now it’s reopening as a free design school

Pensole Lewis will be the first HBCU to reopen, ever.

Michigan’s only HBCU closed in 2013. Now it’s reopening as a free design school

In March 2022, history will be made. Detroit’s Lewis College—a historically Black college that closed in 2013 under financial pressure—will reopen to students. It’s the first time ever that a historically black college or university (HBCU) has reopened after closing.

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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, Oregon, that focuses on teaching underrepresented students skills for the shoe-design industry. Pensole was founded in 2010 by D’Wayne Edwards, a 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 specifically not a college. It’s more like a trade school. Edwards brings in corporations to sponsor programs to teach the skills that generalized design students often lack. In turn, major footwear and apparel companies including Nike, Adidas, and Levi’s will offer internships, and sometimes jobs, to these students.

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Pensole is one of the few institutions that is actively training young students of color to fix an imbalance in the design industry, where only 4.8% of employees are Black. “How do we get more diverse employees?” Edwards asks. “On the design side, that’s hard 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 truly do want to hire more diverse designers, but they have trouble finding them because design has been a white industry from the earliest days of education. Edwards himself did a study on the state of diversity at design schools three years ago. He found that Black students made up only 9% of enrollment at 96 schools teaching art and design in the U.S. Half of those students pursued art rather than design. And half dropped out by their junior year (which is statistically standard for Black students across higher education). When it all shook out, Edwards calculated about 1% of students actually ended up in the pipeline for design jobs.

[Photo: Marlene Ann Brill/Wiki Commons]
HBCUs could help fill this gap, but Edwards notes that fewer than 10% of the roughly 100 existing HBCUs offer design courses. The importance of HBCUs for Black professionals in America cannot be overstated. As the educational nonprofit The Hechinger Report outlines, only 3% of all colleges are HBCUs. But these organizations output 27% of Black graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), 50% of all Black teachers and doctors, and 80% of Black judges in the United States. Logic dictates that the same could be true for design if design programs became more popular at HBCUs. But HBCUs have a problem of their own: They are closing. As many as 20 have closed since the 1930s; six have closed in the past two decades.

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Edwards has secured funding to reopen Lewis College, and he has a plan that will allow his Pensole trade school model to harmonize with two- and four-year college degrees. The reopening is made possible through contributions from the Gilbert Family Foundation and Target (the sum of which Pensole Lewis is not disclosing). Its coursework will consist of certification classes, which will be funded by corporate donors. A company like Nike, for instance, could fund a course on a design topic like CMF (color, material, and finish), or it could fund a business-oriented 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 corporation tells us we’re teaching the right thing,” Edwards says. Corporations give hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize higher education each year, but Pensole’s skills- and course-focused model is unprecedented in the design industry. The model gives corporations more control of education, but it also produces graduates who have skills that employers want. These certificates could be earned in weeks or months, and they can stack as students collect more skills. Edwards imagines that in the future, these certificates might even stack into a formalized associate’s degree.

In the meantime, Pensole Lewis will allow students to accrue college credit if they choose, through a partnership with Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS). That means a design or business course taken at Pensole Lewis will transfer to hours at CCS. This is a crucial part of the program, which allows students to toe-dip freely into design while securing a more formalized associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

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Pensole Lewis does still need the state of Michigan to reinstate its accreditation before opening. Assuming that works out, in the first year Pensole Lewis plans to welcome 300 students to the program. “It’ll only increase every year thereafter,” Edwards says. Open enrollment is slated to begin in December for coursework starting in March 2022, with corporate class partners yet to be announced.

For now, all Edwards will say is that Pensole Lewis will teach about a lot more than footwear and apparel design. To learn more, you can sign up to receive updates on the Pensole Lewis site.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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