Pradeep Sand [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

November 15, 2019; Inside Higher Ed and Detroit Free Press

A long-simmering conflict between the board of Wayne State University, a university that enrolls nearly 27,000 students in Detroit, and its president M. Roy Wilson broke out in the open this month, as four of the university’s board of eight governors, taking advantage of a board member’s absence at one meeting (due to travel outside the US), voted to fire Wilson.

There were some problems with this vote, however. Apparently, the vote came after an unrelated health affairs subcommittee meeting. The four voting to fire Wilson claim that an executive committee meeting followed. The board chair, who supports Wilson, disagrees and says only an informational briefing followed. At the November 4th meeting when the vote occurred, the chair and two other dissenting members walked out in protest. Board chair Kim Trent adds that even if there had been an executive committee meeting, a public vote is still required. An investigation is now being held as to whether the meeting was properly noticed.

And, so, with a board evenly split 4–4, the deadlock continues.

The four voting to oust Wilson claim they did so because he blindsided the board (the chair was consulted, the full board was not) about launching a free tuition program for students attending Detroit city high schools. Wilson publicly announced the program just two hours after informing the board, a move Wayne State claims was an “unintentional oversight.”

But a toxic atmosphere was evident long before the free tuition program was announced. A clear warning sign came in December 2018 when Wilson’s contract was extended for five years on a narrow 5–3 margin. Two who voted to extend the contract left the board right afterward because their terms had ended. Perhaps the narrow margin should have been a sign underlying issues needed to be ironed out.

But if the contract vote was not confirmation enough of troubles, Lindsay Ellis of the Chronicle of Higher Education adds that “over the summer, the faction that would vote to fire Wilson sued the rest of the board, accusing them of violating open-meetings law and unfairly counting Wilson as a board member to make a quorum and push through agenda items,” The faction suing Wilson includes Sandra Hughes O’Brien, a former board chair.

Trent tells Ellis that, “Every day you wake up with the expectation there is going to be nonsense.”

As for Wilson’s record, it is mixed. In some respects, his six-year tenure is highly successful. In 2018, Wayne State won a national award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) for improving its college completion numbers. APLU, which has 243 university members, noted the school’s graduation rate in six years climbed from 26 to 47 percent. APLU adds, “Gains have been particularly pronounced among first-generation, low-income, and students [of color].” In 2019, Wayne State won another APLU award for its “exemplary initiatives in education and workforce development,” including helping over 1,700 adult Detroiters over the past six years become literate.

Wayne State’s medical school, however, has seen many challenges. The Detroit Free Press notes, “At the center of the dispute is a fight over Wayne State’s medical school.” Wilson wants to move the medical school’s primary partnership from the Detroit Medical Center (DMC) to Henry Ford Health Systems. But four board members prefer to keep the primary partnership with DMC.  According to David Jesse at the Free Press, tension between Wayne State and DMC dates back a decade and Wilson had sought to resolve that issue by partnering with Henry Ford instead.

To add another volatile factor, public university boards in Michigan are elected. As it happens, both Trent and O’Brien face re-election a year from now.

James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University who researches university presidents, tells St. Amour he “can’t recall many situations where a board and a president have been more at odds with one another than what you’re seeing play out at Wayne State right now.” A dozen former Wayne State governors this past Monday took the unusual step of writing a letter to the board, expressing their “dismay at the actions of four current board members in clamoring for the ouster of Dr. M. Roy Wilson as WSU’s president.”

As to why Wilson puts up with the discord, Finkelstein says financial incentives may play a role. “If Wilson resigns,” Finkelstein tells St. Amour, “his compensation and benefits will end on the effective date, but if he’s fired with or without cause, he could get a severance package.”

Much remains murky. Waiting for next November’s election to sort everything out seems unlikely to work. Certainly, university students are unimpressed. As one student, Sarosh Irani, a senior studying public health and public affairs, tells Jesse, “So far, I wouldn’t say it has hurt our education, but this can only hurt Wayne State’s reputation. Down the road, if this isn’t resolved one way or another, I think you might see greater implications for students and faculty.”—Steve Dubb