Detroit, with its bankruptcy, shriveled automaking industry, and other problems, gets little respect. Still, Sooshin Choi found the prospect of working at the College for Creative Studies there exciting. "People think of the city as dying with the auto industry, but it has the potential to become a big global center for creativity," he says. "I want to be part of that."
A world-class industrial designer, Mr. Choi, 56, begins this month as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the college, in the center of Detroit's fast-developing Midtown area. The private institution offers 11 majors and has 1,400 undergraduate and graduate students.
Mr. Choi says he resigned—reluctantly—as an associate professor of industrial design at the University of Cincinnati and as director of its School of Design because the new job offers the kind of challenge a designer lives for: "to build something better, something different."
He describes his work as "designing student designers." Students, he says, need to become more than talented practitioners. They must also develop the skills to make connections, both across disciplines and more broadly across society. Innovation flows not just from technological advancement but from seeing the world in a new way, he says.
At Cincinnati, Mr. Choi developed a well-regarded, studio-based education model involving industry partners. His school's undergraduate industrial-design program was tied for first place in the 2013 national rankings of the trade journal DesignIntelligence.
Richard L. Rogers, president of the Detroit college, says Mr. Choi emerged as the clear favorite for provost on the basis of his educational innovation, industrial experience, and international connections.
Mr. Choi holds 50 patents for design. In 26 years as an industrial designer in his native South Korea, he left his thumbprint on scores of everyday products—cars and minivans, sleek office furniture, even seating at the Seoul airport.
Educated in Seoul and London, he also studied at Ohio State University in his 40s "to get new thoughts about design and retool for the next phase of my career."
While working for Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, Mr. Choi helped develop a wheelchair, known as the iBot, that can change height and climb stairs.
The College for Creative Studies evolved from a society founded in 1906 to support artists and craftsmen in Detroit at a time of increasing mass production. Today the college, which sees economic development as part of its mission, has outreach programs that include guidance for small, creative businesses and an art-and-design charter school for students in grades 6 through 12.
The college is already like "a nicely grown tree, with strong roots to the economy and local culture," Mr. Choi says. "I want to make it a forest, and global."