A sneaker designer and educator is looking to reopen the Lewis College of Business in Detroit in a move that could make it Michigan’s only operating HBCU, or Historically Black College or University.
D’Wayne Edwards and his Portland-based Pensole Design Academy plan to open the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design in March as a joint venture with Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, Edwards and CCS announced in an event Tuesday at the former location of the college, now a part of the CCS campus in Midtown.
Enrollment is expected to start in December, though no details could be provided yet as to the number of students expected or breadth of classes.
The school, with funding from billionaire Dan Gilbert’s Gilbert Family Foundation and Target Corp., will start out from the seventh floor of CCS’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education building in New Center. The plan is to find and move to a more permanent site.
The partnership declined to disclose any financial details.
The Lewis College of Business closed in 2013 after first opening in 1928. Edwards is the college’s “controlling stockholder,” according to a Tuesday news release.
“I just want to share a little bit about Dr. Lewis,” Edwards said in a speech at the event. “(Violet T. Lewis) originally founded Lewis College of Business in 1928 in Indianapolis and she did so well the city of Detroit asked her to come here. So she came here in ’39 and founded the Lewis College of Business, and its building’s right behind me, where in 1987 she received her HBCU designation. And that was because of just the amazing work that her, her children, her grandchildren, they all did for the city of Detroit. They supplied GM and Ford and Michigan Bell … with their first Black office employees.”
Edwards, who grew up in California, said Tuesday’s announcement was a day he “didn’t see coming.” At 17 years old, he decided he wanted to design footwear for a living and was told that as a young Black man, that would never be possible for him. Edwards, a former design director for Nike’s Air Jordan brand, did reach that goal. Then he branched out into education after becoming a mentor and founded the Pensole Design Academy in 2010.
Edwards and CCS have requested state legislative approval to be recognized as an HBCU and authorization to operate from the state Department of Education. It would be the first case of a closed HBCU reopening, the news release claims.
CCS is working with Edwards to help secure the needed approvals and providing operational and legal support, CCS president Don Tuski said Tuesday.
“The collaboration and partnership allow us to share overhead,” Tuski said. “D’Wayne is teaching for us this fall and he’s using space this winter to teach some Pensole workshops. So, it’s a pretty close collaboration. Because it’s higher ed, there’s a lot of details that haven’t been worked out. But being a founding member, that we’re accredited, it allows us to provide opportunities for students to come through Pensole and get credit (from CCS).”
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes 107 colleges as HBCUs, according to an organization that tracks them, The Hundred-Seven. Three are closed: Lewis; Concordia College, Alabama; and Saint Paul’s College.
As of 2012, the year before it closed, Lewis was offering undergraduate classes for $90 and graduate classes for $225, according to its archived website. It billed the school as affordable while offering “excellent dedicated educators,” with certificate programs in nonprofit work, masters’ programs, computer science, a small business bachelor’s and small business associate’s degree.
The new Pensole school in Detroit would not, itself, be a degree-granting institution, Edwards said.
The academy’s model provides free education by contracting with companies who pay for the training that’s tailored to their needs, he said. Partner brands in Portland have included Nike, Converse, New Balance and Foot Locker.
Students at Pensole in Detroit would be able to go through various certification programs, or they could “stack programs together” with CCS to get an associate’s or bachelor’s. That’s where the joint venture with accredited CCS comes in.
It’s not yet known where the new Pensole, which is also retaining a presence in Portland, will ultimately go. Lewis’s other former campus in northwest Detroit couldn’t be used — its two-building site at 17370 Meyers Road is being redeveloped for a $20 million low-income senior housing project by New Albany, Ohio-based Wallick Communities and Southfield-based Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, Mayor Mike Duggan announced this summer.
Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer Gilbert, donated as part of their $500 million, 10-year philanthropic pledge announced in March for Detroit programs around poverty and revitalization. Target’s gift falls under their five-year, $100 million in racial equity-focused funding initiatives launched in 2020.