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Wayne State University commissioned an independent investigator whose report found a board member intervened in daily operations, including trying to have employees fired for not following her wishes. 

The member, for her part, counters that she was trying to prevent a university researcher from being deported and claims the report was instigated by a former official who was terminated.

The investigation was launched because of a “dysfunctional board where certain members attempt to engage in operations, and a president who is hampered by in his ability to lead the institution,” according to one of the complaints that accompanied the report. 

The report does not name any board members, but a Feb. 20 complaint pointed to WSU Governor Sandra Hughes O’Brien, who is part of a faction that does not support President M. Roy Wilson. The ongoing split on the board has fueled many high-profile controversies including the collapse of negotiations to make Henry Ford Health System the university’s chief medical partner.

“To ensure a healthy and effective Board of Governors, a course correction is necessary,” said the report, written by an Iowa law firm, Fredrikson & Byron. “Board members must understand how to govern themselves to effectively serve within the standards required by the State of Michigan, the Higher Learning Commission, and in the best interest of the University as a whole.”

WSU general counsel Louis Lessem hired the Iowa law firm, which interviewed 24 people, in response to complaints made to the nation’s higher education accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission, that a WSU Board of Governors member may have violated the agency’s standards by allegedly interfering in the day to day management of the institution.

The report cited three areas of interference involving the unnamed board member: with the university’s employment relationships; the operations of the office of international students and the university’s internal audit of scholarships to student athletes.

The investigation concluded that the board violated Higher Learning Commission standards, and recommended an adoption of a code of conduct, along with training. The board defeated a proposal to adopt such a code last month, with O’Brien and members Dana Thompson, Michael Busuito and Anil Kumar voting no.

It's unclear how much the report cost; as of Thursday, WSU had not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Detroit News.

In response to the report, O’Brien denied overstepping her authority, calling it “a hit piece.”

“It never been any of our intentions to run the university,” she said. "I know where my place is. I know my lane. But there are certain certain circumstances where somebody needs help who is getting deported and nobody at the university is moving. What am I to do? Just let the researcher get deported? Or take action as a statewide elected official?”

O’Brien, a lawyer, said she believes one of the anonymous complaints was lodged by David Hefner, the former WSU vice president of health affairs, who left the university early this year, around the time one of the complaints was filed. O’Brien said the board directed Wilson to fire Hefner when she was chair.

“This is his way of retaliating against me,” O’Brien said. “This is how they weaponize information.”

Reached by phone and asked if he filed one of the complaints, Hefner said, “No comment.”

“Whatever is out there, I am sure will speak for itself,” said Hefner, who is working part-time outside of Michigan. "But I don’t know about retaliation. I don’t have anything to retaliate about.”

“The board asked me to be fired,” he continued. “If they had a do-over, I am sure that would not have happened.”

He also noted the report’s finding that O’Brien wanted people fired when she didn’t get her way.

“She wants everybody fired,” said Hefner. “I can’t pretend to know what maker her tick. I do believe she is doing irreparable harm to the university.”

Board Chair Kim Trent, who is part of the board faction that supports Wilson, said it would be fair for O’Brien to call the report a “hit piece” if its findings were unfounded. 

Trent also said the faction of the board that does not support Wilson needs to move past a split vote last December that extended Wilson’s contract through 2023 and heal the split.

“It’s really hurting the university,” she said. “It is my hope and prayer that we can move past the ill will of a vote we took months ago and we can move past that and and try to work together ... Everyone who is there is there for the best interests of the university. We need to keep that mission in front of us at all times.”

Trent added that she doesn’t think the report's findings will jeopardize the university’s accreditation.

“However, it could trigger an investigation where the Higher Learning Commission could come in if they think we are not taking sufficient action to address the things in the report,” she said. “They could send in their own team to conduct an investigation.  The danger in that is that it would divert our executive’s attention from the many projects that were are working to deal with the very serious prospect of having an accreditation agency on campus. That is never a comfortable time.”

The report is the latest evidence of the division on the board, whose members have been at odds over numerous issues in recent months, including actions taken at a June 21 board meeting that led to a lawsuit, which remains unresolved.

According to the report, the unnamed board member “took particular interest in a University employee with a unique immigration status. The Board member, dissatisfied with the action (taken by the Office of International Students and Scholars), proposed the University retain an outside attorney to handle the employee's immigration case,” according the report.

It continued that the outside attorney asked for a signature on a document to be submitted to renew the employee’s visa and the board member called and “demanded that an ... employee immediately sign the document.”

The WSU employee said she needed to time to review the document, according to the report, but the board member “raised her voice and insisted that the papers be signed right away.” The board member also called for the director of the office to be terminated and for its oversight be transferred from the provost’s office to the Office of General Counsel, according to the report.

O’Brien said she stepped in because researcher from Chile was at risk of being deported because paperwork required by the university had mistakes that needed to be corrected quickly to meet a deadline.

The report also found that “a Board member took action to reorganize the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies and its leadership, without involvement of the full Board of Governors or the President.”

“This Board member attempted to provide the Center’s Assistant Director with a larger role in the Center’s management and reduce the role of the Director,” the report said.

O’Brien said that the center was at risk of closing after it had been moved around to different colleges and faced budget issues.

“None of that came from me,” said O’Brien. “This Latino studies complaint was discovered during the investigation. It wasn’t a formal complaint. It was — ‘We’re just going to add that on now.’ The allegation ... had nothing to do with me. I just wanted to save the center.”

The report also cites a 2018 incident involving an internal audit of financial aid awarded to student athletes to ensure compliance with NCAA regulations.

"During the audit, a Board member reportedly approached the Auditor after a meeting and demanded that she be able to preview any reports to the NCAA," the report said. "The Board member also told the Auditor to keep their conversation private and not share it with President Wilson."

O'Brien said she investigated after Wilson mentioned some issues with the NCAA after walking out of a meeting and not providing details. 

"I called the athletic director because I wanted to know what was happening," O'Brien said, "and what we were doing wrong."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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