WSU President M. Roy Wilson, left, visits the spinal research lab with professor Juri Gelovani. Wilson said upkeep of such facilities has lagged. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Less than six months after taking office, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson is pushing an ambitious agenda to bolster the school’s investment in students and faculty, lure high-profile researchers and secure more state funding.
Wilson wants to transform WSU into the premier urban research institution in the country, with the renaissance of Midtown and Detroit as the backdrop. But he has many challenges at Michigan’s third-largest university, including one of the state’s lowest graduation rates, dwindling research awards and state funding incentives that do not work in WSU’s favor.
Among Wilson’s strategies is lobbying lawmakers who historically have not been friendly to WSU, hoping to persuade them to put measures in place that could help shore up Wayne State’s funding. He’s also immersed in efforts to launch one of WSU’s largest fundraising campaigns this year to help it surpass other prestigious urban research institutions, such as Temple University in Philadelphia and the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“There’s a tremendous amount of potential here at Wayne State, particularly with the revitalization of Midtown and the revitalization of downtown,” Wilson said. “A strong Detroit is important for Michigan, and Wayne State is important for a strong Detroit. But I do worry that unless we can get some more state funding for higher ed — and for Wayne State specifically — that opportunity will be lost in terms of realizing (the university’s) full potential.”
In his first wide-ranging interview since the board of governors appointed him WSU’s 12th president in June, Wilson recently summarized his goals, and the challenges facing the university.
Among his biggest concerns are the metrics the state uses to award performance-based funding to Wayne State and other public universities. Under the two-year-old program, schools are rewarded for increasing graduation rates, for instance, and limiting tuition hikes.
“You have to have the right performance metrics,” Wilson said. “If you have the wrong ones, you can incent the wrong behavior.”
The criteria include a university’s six-year graduation rate, total degree completion and expenditures on research and development. The scores are compared to the universities’ National Carnegie peers.
This academic year, Wayne State was slated to receive $534,700 but didn’t get the funding because it opted instead last June to raise tuition 8.9 percent, well over the state’s 3.75 percent cap. WSU’s larger hike disqualified it from getting the performance aid but brought in $7.3 million extra from students.
The state metrics resulted in $4.4 million in performance aid for the University of Michigan and $4.9 million for Michigan State University. Even institutions such as Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University got $2.3 million and $2.1 million, respectively, four times more than WSU was slated to get.
Wayne State officials say the university needed the funding from the tuition hike, recommended by then-president Allan Gilmour. Wilson said WSU can’t do that again, but the school needs more funding from somewhere.
Wayne State is actively contributing to the resurgence of Midtown, he said, including a wide patrol of Midtown by university police to make people feel safe. These are good-neighbor gestures, but they come at a cost to the university.
More Pell grants, more aid
Wilson argues Wayne State also is doing what the state wants by making it easy for community college students to transfer to the university and serving a large population of students with low incomes. In return, he’d like the state to add Pell grants to its performance metrics, giving more aid to schools that have more Pell grant recipients.
Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, and Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, say the current performance funding metrics are fair. But both agree with Wilson that the number of students with Pell grants could be considered.
“Pell changes the dynamics of a university with the more low-income students, making it tough to make some of these other metrics,” Boulus said.
Rothwell added that universities that educate students who rely on Pell grants have a unique mission in the state. “They are educating underserved students, and we need to educate all students,” he said.
Wilson said the university has invested a fair amount in student success so its graduation rate, among the worst of the state’s 15 public universities, goes up. When Gillmour, Wilson’s predecessor, took office in 2011, the five-year rate was 23 percent.
Initiatives to boost the graduation rate include adding counselors and making registration easier, but much more needs to be done, Wilson said.
“We don’t want to use the same excuses and say we have different type of students and woe is me,” Wilson said. “We have got to own this.”
Another key area that needs to be bolstered at WSU is research, Wilson said. There has not been much investment in the research infrastructure in years, or in adding more high-caliber researchers to the region.
But WSU hasn’t had the money to recruit more scholars, invest in the upkeep of labs or even fund faculty pilot projects.
“As a result, we’ve fallen behind,” Wilson said. “Our research numbers are declining, not increasing. The amount of money we are getting from the federal government also is declining. It’s a slow decline, and some of it is because of the sequester. But if you look at where we are compared to other universities, Michigan or MSU, our decline is more than it should be.”
In 2009, the National Institutes of Health awarded WSU 174 grants totaling $66.8 million. But by 2013, awards dipped to 158 and funds dropped 26 percent, to $49.4 million, partly because of the federal budget sequester. By contrast, the University of Michigan lost 11 percent of its NIH funding since 2009, while Michigan State University’s funding went up and down during that period.
Charles Parrish, a political science professor at Wayne State, said the majority of NIH-funded research comes out of the medical school, so it needs to ramp up research to achieve some of Wilson’s goals.
Agenda presents challenges
Meanwhile, Wilson has a long way to go to prevail in the rest of his agenda, Parrish said. Wayne State has to educate a population in which more than half rely on Pell grants, find a way to get more state funding with performance metrics that work against it and lobby a Legislature that is not sympathetic to WSU, Parrish added.
“He’s got a very tough road to hoe,” said Parrish, who’s also president of the WSU faculty union.
Wilson was appointed last June to lead WSU under a five-year contract, earning more than $500,000 annually. Since his tenure began Aug. 1, the university approved a memorandum of understanding and long-term lease with a developer to erect a $60 million, nine-story apartment, retail, hotel and conference center in the heart of Midtown.
Wayne State also announced it will begin offering prospective students from all Great Lakes states and Ontario a tuition rate that is 10 percent more than in-state students pay; the school’s in-state rate is $11,097 for a 30-credit hour load.
Wilson married Jacqueline Page last month. Wayne State’s new first lady has said she plans to take up the issue of homelessness on campus and in the community.
Students may not know Wilson well yet, but they know he’s around.
Senior Mohammad Ibrahim was most impressed when Wilson set up an education fund for the three children of Tiane Brown, the slain law student whose body was found off campus in October.
“He made the right call,” said Ibrahim, 21, of Dearborn Heights. “It’s the university’s responsibility to say, ‘Look, we care about you.’ ”
Senior Lauren Thompkins said she is feeling connected to Wilson since he sends out several emails every week.
“It just shows he cares a little more about the students on campus,” said Thompkins, 22, of Detroit. “He’s not just taking care of the regular business on campus. He’s actually getting involved with the students.”