From 1986 till 1992, Rycus served as Chairman of the University of Michigan's Urban Planning Program in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He was also the Co-director of the Studies in Urban Security Group (SUSG), which for over fifteen years did consulting for the city of Detroit's Police, Fire/EMS and Water Departments. SUSG did security analyses for a number of water departments around the country. Rycus has worked with the University of Michigan’s Safety and Security Task Force on perceptions of campus safety, and in 1997 helped prepare a report on international water security methods for the United States’ Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection. From 1986 until his retirement in 2000, Rycus had traveled around the world studying crime reduction methods for planners. He has carried out crime reduction research at the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, and the United Nations Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs in Vienna, Austria, as well as a number of other organizations throughout the world. In 1999 he was with the University of Central England, Birmingham, UK, where he developed a survey to study the role of Urban Planning in developing local crime reduction strategies under their recently enacted Crime and Disorder Act. Currently Rycus spends his time writing and is the author of five (soon to be six) novels.
Written by Linda W. Fitzgerald,
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning’s annual publication,
Surrounded by files, memos, articles and data from an in-process survey he’s conducting, Mitch Rycus does not give the impression of a man about to retire. Dressed in a cardinal red sweater, he appears to be in constant motion, even when sitting at his desk. As he shares some of the highlights of his remarkably varied career, the word "fun" crops up again and again. Clearly, this is a man who has enjoyed his work. Work that has taken him from the UM Radiation Laboratory to the corporate offices of a California rocket manufacturer, from the dispatch center of Detroit's police force to universities in Japan and Vienna, and from the geography department at UM-Flint to the chairmanship of the Program in Urban and Regional Planning.
Mitch Rycus was 22 and just out of the Navy when he enrolled at the University of Michigan. That was in1954. Four years later, he had a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a job at the Radiation Laboratory, and a new bride, Carole. Mitch went on to earn a master's degree in mathematics, after which he and Carole relocated to California. There, he worked as a master dimension mathematician at Rocketdyne Corporation, checking engineering drawings for errors. "I was the one who discovered that the Atlas rockets were blowing up as the result of a misdrawing," he says. "That was exciting."
But exciting or not, Mitch decided that what he really wanted was to enroll in UM's graduate program in physics. Back in Ann Arbor, he took a job with Conductron Corporation, a business founded by UM professor Kip Siegel, and was soon heading up the company's optics research lab.
The1970s marked a turning point. Conductron was bought out by McDonnell Douglas and employees were relocating to Missouri. The Rycuses decided they weren't going. "Fortunately," says Mitch," at about the same time my friend and colleague Frank Ferguson, from the College of Engineering, offered me a job with the Michigan State Chamber of Commerce. "The job, funded by a grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity, focused on helping the disadvantaged poor overcome socio-economic barriers.
Mitch and Frank spent the next two years conducting research and running employment training sessions. Most people with a background in the hard sciences might have had qualms about their place in the domain of social science. But not Mitch. He laughs as he recalls the confidence of youth, "There wasn’t a problem in the world we couldn't solve by applying the first principles of science.” But following a chance conversation with a sociologist, Rycus began to understand for the first time that "there are no first principles in sociology. I realized that unlike my holography laboratory, the world was an incredibly dynamic place, changing every moment. "It wasn't long after this revelation that a friend encouraged him to look into urban planning.
Rycus, who was 40 years old at the time, had some understandable misgivings, all of which were put to rest by conversations with urban planning faculty in general and program chair Bill Drake in particular. "He made me see how much I loved the idea of getting involved in a social program and bringing in the expertise of a physicist and mathematician."
"It was a courageous and gutsy thing to do, "says Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kate Warner, who has known Mitch since he entered the UTEP program in the1970s.”In a sense, he was reinventing himself."
By1976, Mitch had his Ph.D. from UTEP and a spot on the faculty of the UM-Flint geography department. When a junior faculty appointment in Urban Planning became available, he filled it and was soon teaching a panoply of courses that reflected his wide-ranging interests. There was a course on energy and entropy, a seminar in planning and technology, a course about nuclear war, even a class on crime and violence in public schools. "Then as now," says Professor James Snyder, "Mitch was a man of unparalleled energy and enthusiasm, a pinch hitter who could teach and do anything."
In 1984, Snyder invited Rycus to join him in an unusual consulting project for the Detroit Police Department, studying the physical aspects of security. Rycus, who was becoming increasingly interested in the relationship between urban violence and urban planning, agreed to help. In the mid-1980s, he and Snyder directed the installation of an enhanced 911 system for police, fire and EMS dispatch in Detroit. "It was a fascinating project," Rycus says, "but I was very bothered by the fact that colleagues and students were always asking me if I wasn't afraid to be spending so much time in Detroit. I found it troubling to see this tremendous fear and misunderstanding of crime."
Never one to let a problem slip by unsolved, Mitch Rycus joined forces with Snyder in 1985 to found and co-direct the Studies in Urban Security Group (SUSG). Under the auspices of that program, Rycus, Snyder and other faculty members consulted for major cities around the world. During that time, Mitch's fondness for the city of Detroit reached nearly mythic proportions among faculty and students. Former student David Thacher, now an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy, recalls how he and his mentor would "drive around on improvised tours ... I actually wound up knowing something about Detroit, including where to get a good chili dog. And Mitch really created a sense of community in SUSG."
In the fall of 1986, Mitch Rycus returned to Ann Arbor after a year's sabbatical, during which he toured the major capitals of the world "to see what was going on in crime prevention. I became very interested in the role of urban planning in crime reduction." But this new endeavor had to wait since, upon his return to Ann Arbor, Rycus was named chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Program.
In many ways, it was a challenging time. Urban planning was not attracting large numbers of students, and many programs were following the mistaken strategy of specialization. On the plus side, private industry was beginning to hire more urban planners. "I tried not to fall into the trap of specialization," Rycus recalls. ''At Michigan, we're very fortunate in that urban planning is not a discipline but instead depends on the disciplines. We created what became known as the Michigan Model by drawing on the larger university to develop a solid multidisciplinary planning program."
Professor of Urban Planning Hemalata Dandekar observes that, as an administrator, Mitch was "a bridge builder." She notes that one of his most significant contributions was "the collegial, inclusive yet pragmatic tone he set. It's a tradition that continues today and one that helped get the College through some hard times."
In1990, Rycus spent a semester at the University of Tokyo, where he conducted research on methods of crime prevention. In1992, he stepped down from the chairmanship after two three-year terms, he developed a program on the role of urban planning in crime reduction for the United Nations Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs in Vienna. That was followed by projects in Canada, Mexico and Japan. He has just returned from a semester at the University of Central England, and is now conducting a study on the impact of that country's 1998 Crime and Disorder Act on the participation of urban planners in crime reduction strategies.
With retirement looming, Mitch Rycus is still formulating his plans. Foremost among them is spending more time with his four grandsons. Then, of course, there is the consulting and the research yet to be done.
But right now, he finds it hard to believe that he has spent nearly 46 years at the University of Michigan, as student, staff and faculty member. "Over the years, I've had a lot of nice titles," he says. “But the nicest of them all is professor. It's great to be on faculty at a place where one has gone to school, particularly a place that has such an aura and tradition. Wherever my travels take me, I'm approached by UM alumni and see the reverence and mythology associated with this University. I can’t tell you how much I've enjoyed being part of that whole milieu."