James C. Renick had met author Ralph Ellison, boxer Muhammad Ali, playwright LeRoi Jones and President Bill Clinton, among others. But even with his prominent connections, the former UM-Dearborn chancellor chose to showcase a different part of his life in his Administration Building office: a photo of the small, white-frame Midwest home in which he grew up.
“I keep it on my desk to remind myself where I come from,” Renick said in a 1999 interview. Renick, who died at age 72 in 2021, served UM-Dearborn from 1993-99.
Renick strongly believed in remembrance and recognition — for example, after his grandmother died, Renick made his mother’s maiden name, Carmichael, his middle name as a tribute.
Following Renick’s example of remembrance and recognition, Chancellor Domenico Grasso requested — and the Board of Regents unanimously approved July 21 — naming the campus’ University Center to honor UM-Dearborn’s fourth chancellor and the inclusive strides, campus growth and community partnerships Renick made as a campus leader.
The James C. Renick University Center — one of the most frequented buildings on campus where students, faculty and staff socialize — is a testament to Renick’s legacy and a reminder of the impact he had on shaping the campus. Built in 1980 and renovated in 2002, the 75,729-square-foot building is primarily used for student services and events.
Renick’s wife of 43 years, Peggy, said her husband didn’t seek public recognition, but he would be humbled by the honor.
“Jim worked day and night to make the world a better place through education, and I am glad he’s being recognized for the work he was so dedicated to,” she said. “Jim was very humble. But, if he were here today, I know he would be pleased. We sure are. Thank you to the Board of Regents and Chancellor Grasso for this incredible honor. My family and I are deeply moved.”
Hearing the naming news, UM-Dearborn Custodian Vanessa Maxwell, who has worked on campus for 33 years, attested to Renick’s character and leadership.
“I am so glad we are doing this. Chancellor Renick was such a good man and I cannot think of a better person for this honor. If you worked hard, he respected you and your work no matter what your title was or the circumstances you came from,” she said. “He was here to lift you up. Chancellor Renick made changes on our campus for the better. Now more people here will learn his name and the impact he had at UM-Dearborn.”
Under Renick’s guidance, Grasso said, the university experienced record enrollment growth and completed its first capital campaign. The Management, Engineering and Center for Corporate and Professional Development buildings were completed. Construction started on the Environmental Interpretive Center, the Wellness Center and the new College of Arts, Sciences and Letters buildings.
Renick laid important groundwork to be inclusive in practice and responsive to community needs.
“Chancellor Renick held a strong commitment to student success while positioning the campus to be more responsive to the cultural, social, economic and intellectual issues of southeast Michigan,” Grasso said.
With a focus on building relationships with business, political leaders, local schools and social communities, Renick described Dearborn as an “interactive university.”
He served on the boards of New Detroit and the Detroit Urban League. He also initiated a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service at the university, now an annual campus tradition that will celebrate 30 years in 2023. Students, faculty, staff and alumni work together to make a positive impact in Detroit, Dearborn and other Southeastern Michigan communities.
Maxwell said Renick didn’t just advocate for inclusive practices at a high level. He took action when witnessing unjust treatment anywhere.
“In the ’90s, people often looked the other way when it came to discrimination. But not Chancellor Renick. I don’t want to get into details, but when I was treated unfairly (at work), he came to me and asked what I’d like done to correct it,” Maxwell said.
“I didn’t want anyone to lose their job, but I did want an apology and to be respected at work. The next time I saw that person, I got an apology. Chancellor Renick was a very busy man who didn’t think twice about taking the time to make the situation right — that’s the type of leader he was.”
The focus of access and attainment was central to Renick’s vision and continues to be prioritized across campus today through underserved-community initiatives like the Go Blue Guarantee, Dearborn Comeback, Destination Dearborn, STEM Scholars and more.
“There is a range of talented students with different talents, different backgrounds and different ideas. That diversity is part of the education universities should offer,” Renick said in 1999. “Education has a liberating effect, and we need to use education and our intellectual ability. That is what will help us to move beyond some of society’s problems.”
There will be a naming ceremony in the fall. Details will be shared in September.