Known locally as "Dr. Detroit," retired University of Detroit Mercy business professor and longtime Birmingham resident Mike Whitty is a man who can't be summed up in one sentence.
"I'm trying to flunk retirement by continuing to try to be a prophet in my own time," Whitty said a few days after undergoing surgery. "Sure, in my 20s to my own students, some might say I was memorable."
Take for instance, the time that Whitty, then a senior faculty member at the university, started class by laying out candles and a prayer rug in front of a television before kneeling in mock worship, bringing philosophy and religion into his teachings.
"The media is the new church, and it's a false god," he said, recalling the class. "I was trying to tell the students, 'don't just sit in front of the box and believe everything they tell you. You're talking to the Wizard of Oz."
While the story may give the impression of a real-life Howard Beale, Whitty considers himself less a prophetic madman than a "futurist." The approach led General Motors, Chrysler and the United Auto Workers to hire him to do human resource training.
"Futurism caught my eye, or 'market research' in business school, which is forecasting trends," he said. "I really got interested in that during the civil rights movement. It's really market research and applying it to economic, market and cultural trends. It's not just philosophy, it includes big data and other aspects as a professional practice."
From marching with Walter Reuther and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Detroit and Selma, to talks at local libraries and bookstores today, Whitty speaks about spirituality, ethics and values, and where they intersect with everyday life for a new optimism. The topics lend themselves to a wide range of interests, such as responsible drug policy reform – a topic he will speak about in May at the Baldwin Public Library and a class he taught at as a lecturer at the University of Michigan – to the continued dosing of the public's thoughts through new media channels.
In addition to his time at the University of Detroit and as a lecturer at the University of Michigan, Whitty has been a visiting professor at Santa Clara University of Business; Acting Director of Labor and Urban Affairs at the University of Minnesota; a part time professor at Central Michigan University; San Francisco State University; the University of San Francisco; Wayne State University; and Oaksterdam University, which is recognized as the United States' first cannabis college.
"It was created to develop some professionalism in the cannabis industry," he said. "It was being accepted and established in California, so the university was created to give it a curriculum and professionalism, and to take the stereotypes away."
Teaching a course in advocacy, Whitty discussed issues that small businesses faced when dealing with local municipalities, residents and law enforcement. He has also worked with former Detroit police chief Ike McKinnon in efforts to decriminalize marijuana. Other research and writings look at the impact of AIDS in the workplace.
Today, Whitty continues to be an activist for social issues, writing and lecturing throughout metro Detroit on a regular basis, while still discussing and taking a personal journey of optimism for Birmingham, Detroit and life in general.
"I still give public talks and am active," he said. "I really identify with Dick Gregory and MLK. They were sharing their values with the world. It's about walking the walk.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent