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Higher ed to the rescue

Protecting water resources for the next generation

As the 2016 Presidential campaign heats up this summer and the nation looks inward, candidates need to come up to speed in addressing a chronic water crisis in Flint, Michigan and across America. For good reason, this water resource catastrophe has captured the attention of national media and turned Flint into the posterchild for rebuilding the sustainable urban and industrial ecosystem.

Whistleblowers and commentators alike claimed that when the City of Flint changed its water supply, the new water source had a corrosive effect on old pipes that allowed lead to seep into the City’s water supply. We learned in the ensuing investigation that ingested lead goes through the bloodstream causing episodes of body pain, headaches, mood disorders, miscarriages, and major childhood developmental disorders. The problem is so big that water supply experts from other cities, like John Sullivan, chief engineer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, flocked to Flint to advise local water resource officials.

In response to the water crisis, Flint civic and business leaders sounded a clarion call to the National Guard and The University of Michigan-Flint to help remedy this catastrophe. Thankfully, both the National Guard and UM-Flint were well positioned to make a real difference in the Greater Flint community. A February 2016 feature story in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled ‘In a Crisis-Stricken City, a Public University Searches for Its Role’ asked, “What role should a public university play when its city plunges into crisis”? In the case of Flint, simply put - a large one.

To leverage their collective impact, the University of Michigan system created a $100,000 funding opportunity for faculty researchers to help address the Flint water disaster and devise proactive measures for the future. University of Michigan President, Mark Schissel, put it nicely this way: “it is a true testament to how deeply committed the university community is to Flint’s recovery from this crisis”. For the longer term, UM faculty and staff will hopefully be poised to apply for state, federal, and private grants to support future research. We learned from UM-Flint Provost, Dr. Doug Knerr, that these projects represent a great depth of dedication from faculty across the state to helping Flint, to offering their expertise and to being of service to address the multitude of issues surrounding the water crisis.

Early on, the University ensured that water on campus was filtered, and at the same time handed out portable filters to students, staff, and faculty. UM-Flint expanded its focus to the larger metropolitan area by distributing supplies; volunteering to help Flint residents; and deploying research and public health policy strengths to spread awareness, prevention, training, and education.

Beyond these considerable efforts and results, UM-Flint’s Nursing Department provided free lead screening for at-risk children and realized that even in times of crisis, there are teachable moments. So, in the wake of the water catastrophe, Nursing students at UM-Flint are learning problem solving skills, crisis management, clinical planning, and importantly, a realization of why their profession is vital to public health.

To further promote the wellbeing of Flint neighbors, the University began a city-wide mitigation effort. Importantly, UM-Flint is the convener, organizer, and honest broker for mapping the City’s current water infrastructure to help identify weak spots so the City can proactively fix them before they become bigger problems.

Uniquely, UM-Flint is conducting a free course on the water crisis and hosting a Speaker Series to guide and inform future conversations in the Flint Community. Speakers at these UM-Flint events are esteemed scientists, academics, business and civic leaders, public health policy officials, and journalists. These special events focus on real world water disasters, the history of the Flint water problem, the science behind the crisis, public health efforts to remediate the crisis, economic and social justice impacts, and the political backdrop of the crisis.

In the wake of the scientific slipstream in Flint, local water resources, public health, civil defense, and public safety experts are now leading voices in anticipating and responding to future water crises. The problem, however, is not limited to Michigan. Now, colleges and universities across the U.S. and around the world should think more seriously about their own water supply and focus on building sustainable ecosystems – or face the consequences of being the next Flint.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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