Wilson fends off faction's effort to fire him from WSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — A four-member faction of the Wayne State University Board of Governors says they fired President M. Roy Wilson at a meeting on Monday, a move their opponents say has no legal standing because it did not occur in a formal meeting.

The surprise salvo against Wayne State's 12th president was followed by an email from governor Michael Busuito to WSU's chief of police, calling on him, the general counsel and IT department to deny Wilson the office of the presidency after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

That deadline passed without enforcement, according to university spokesman Matt Lockwood.

“He’s the president,” he said. “There was no legitimate vote to vote him out. Nothing has changed.”

Wilson, who was attending a White House event Tuesday, said he was planning to stay at Wayne State and was "more committed than ever.”

Board of Governors chair Kim Trent told university employees in an email that Wilson had not been fired and beseeched them "not to let board politics distract you from your important roles."

The effort to remove Wilson came after a health affairs subcommittee meeting attended by seven of WSU's eight-member board Monday night, according to accounts from board members. 

After the subcommittee meeting, the seven members remained for a second meeting at which Busuito moved to fire Wilson if he did not resign by the end of Tuesday. The motion passed with four votes while the other three members who support Wilson walked out.

Wayne State University M. Roy Wilson

The second gathering was called to discuss the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge that several board members felt slighted by after they were informed of it hours before its unveiling last week. The free tuition program had been planned by the university since April, governor Sandra Hughes O'Brien says she was told by university officials.

Governors O'Brien, Dana Thompson and Anil Kumar voted with Busuito to support Wilson's termination. One board member known to support Wilson, Bryan Barnhill, was not present, giving the four opponents a majority among the seven members present.

Busuito submitted a two-page statement as part of his motion, explaining why Wilson should depart Wayne State. It summarized issues that have led to a fractured board and infighting.

"This board is split as a result of Wilson's failure to lead," said Busuito in his statement. "A split board paralyzes an institution. When such a division exists, the president must reunite the board or leave.

"Wilson's defiance and outright disrespect of the board, the Constitution and the bylaws show that he is not capable of bringing this board back together. If he refuses to resign, he must be fired immediately to get WSU out of this state of paralysis. He has left no other options."

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson announced a free tuition program for Detroiters last month, angering some members of the university's board.

Busuito said the board had the authority to vote to fire Wilson during the second meeting because it was an executive committee meeting. But Trent, who supports Wilson, said she did not convene an executive committee meeting, so there couldn't be a formal vote. 

The gathering of board members was for a briefing by WSU administrators on the Heart of Detroit pledge, so the so-called vote was not valid and Wilson will continue to lead Wayne State, Trent said.

Trent noted the faction of the board that does not support Wilson does not have the five votes to fire the president. Yet she said she was still disappointed they engineered another situation to undermine the WSU president and damage the university's brand.

"It’s par for the course for people who are duplicitous and who clearly have decided that the university's reputation is collateral damage," Trent said. "In their quest to attack Roy Wilson, they have decided that damage to the university’s reputation is acceptable to them.

"... They want to convince the community this president is not effective when the exact opposite is true. They use their energy to plot and scheme to undermine him, create distractions and not be honest." 

Wilson attended the subcommittee meeting on Monday but departed before Busuito moved to fire him. On Tuesday, he was at the White House Summit of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment and issued a statement.

"I’ve been advised by both the chair and vice chair of the Board of Governors to ignore Gov. Busuito’s note about termination, and I have no intention of stepping down," Wilson said.

Governor Mark Gaffney, who supports Wilson, said he wishes the board members who want the president out would stop acting "childish, divisive and extraordinarily unprofessional."

"Just because three board members have personal problems (with Wilson) does not mean that the solution should be for him to leave the school," Gaffney said. "What about the dozens of things he had done for the school? These three have an over-appreciation of their own selves."

Moves to hire or fire the presidents of public Michigan universities historically have occurred in open meetings, posted in advance, and which allow for public comment, all requirements of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. 

Formal meetings of the Wayne State University Board of Governors are required to be open to the public, according to the Michigan Constitution. Although a formal meeting is not defined, significant moves impacting a school’s leadership have been recognized by courts as formal actions. The committee meetings that occurred Monday were not posted on the university’s board of governors' public meeting schedule. 

O'Brien said the board meeting didn't have to be posted because it was a special or emergency meeting, and those don't need to be posted, according to WSU bylaws.

Trent said the meeting was not posted because it was not an official meeting. 

Busuito, O'Brien and Thompson said the board secretary said twice in an email the meeting was an executive committee meeting. Kumar added he skipped a hospital executive meeting he was supposed to attend to be present at Monday's gathering.

O'Brien and Thompson, both lawyers, added decisions on personnel and real estate get decided in executive committee meetings and get "reported out" at regular board meetings. They expect Monday night's decision regarding Wilson would stand up to any scrutiny. 

"It's already been decided," O'Brien said of potential challenges.

Added Thompson: "It is time we move forward with a different leader who will respect the will of the board."

Trent, however, disputed the assertions about "reporting out" on decisions made in executive committee meetings, saying all decisions are ratified in public board meetings.

"Roy Wilson will continue to serve as president of the university," Trent said. "We’ll see what happens next."

Meanwhile, Busuito, moved quickly Tuesday morning to message the chief of the university police to suggest that Wilson should not be allowed to return to his office after the close of business Tuesday.

"As chief law enforcement officer of WSU, I request that you notify General Counsel and IT as early as possible this morning to help you effectuate this action that represents the will of the people," wrote Busuito in an email that he shared with The News.

The moves are a crescendo in a series of actions by the faction of the Wayne State board that does not support Wilson. 

The schism began about a year ago, when Wilson's contract passed 5-3, and the faction that opposes his leadership torpedoed university officials' plans to make the Henry Ford Health System the school's primary medical partner. One half of the board also boycotted a June meeting that led to the other half putting Wilson in as a non-voting ex officio board member, leading to a vote that has since been challenged in court.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said that she was not aware of any complaints that had come into the office regarding the WSU meeting.

​But if there was a complaint, Rossman-McKinney said: “We'd certainly look at the Open Meetings Act, whether a proper notice was posted and whether or not a quorum (of the board) was present."

Reached by phone while at work in India, Barnhill said he thought the legality of the Monday night board meeting would be decided in a court.

"As this unfolds, what we may see is a repeat of what happened in the past, a lawsuit, with a side committed to their point of view," Barnhill said. "I disagree with the approach and think the overall consequence is detrimental to the reputation of the university."

Kumar said the last straw was when board members were not alerted until the last minute to last week's unveiling of the tuition pledge.

That's one of the reasons why Kumar supported the firing of Wilson. The board also had been together the night before at a committee meeting but no one told them about the announcement.

Kumar also said he has watched the division on the board grow deeper during the seven months he has been a member, even though he said Wilson has done great things for the university.

"It is the responsibility of the president to get everyone together," Kumar said. "What I have seen is the schism has deepened. The board (under Wilson) is considered irrelevant.

"As a board member, I am learning more from the news media. The question is: Why are we are on the board?"

O'Brien agreed, adding transparency is lacking under Wilson's administration.

"His undoing," O'Brien said, "comes from the fact that he doesn't realize he works for us, and we don’t work for him."

Trent challenged O'Brien, calling out her alleged attempts to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the university, bringing the attention of the nation's higher education accreditation body to Wayne State, and possibly putting the entire university at risk of losing accreditation.

Trent also said Kumar consistently has said he is too new to the board to voice an opinion on issues, and it was the first time he expressed no confidence in Wilson.

"Time and time again," Trent said, "they have shown a willingness to state mistruths to the media, and to mischaracterize our relationship with the president."

Near the end of the workday Tuesday, Busuito said Wilson had not gotten back with the faction that wanted him out about whether he planned to resign.

"What president in their right mind would want to stay where half their board thinks they are divisive, incompetent and dishonest?" Busuito said.