3 Wayne State governors say they weren't told about free tuition, want president out

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When Wayne State University announced a program to give free tuition to Detroit high school graduates, it didn't notify members of the Board of Governors until the last minute, leading some members to renew calls for President M. Roy Wilson to leave.

With the exception of WSU Board Chair Kim Trent, board members were alerted about two hours before the unveiling of the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge, announced last week with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit students.

President of the Wayne State University Roy Wilson listens during a Board of Governors meeting at Wayne State University.

It is the latest example of Wilson’s "lack of transparency and accountability to his employer," governors Michael Busuito, Sandra Hughes O’Brien and Dana Thompson said in a statement Monday night.

"The announcement of the Tuition Pledge was a desperate move by a President on the ropes who has exhausted all options and is digging in but as Board members, we will continue to hold him accountable," said the statement..

"This Tuition Pledge has major financial, political and reputational implications, yet the President did not inform nor discuss with all members of the Board the details of the Pledge prior to the morning the Tuition Pledge was announced.

Trent said it was unfortunate that board members were not alerted and many apologies were issued.

But Trent took aim at the three board members and said she and others have confidence in WIlson's leadership.

"As much as the three board members who are obsessed with punishing President Wilson because they did not have enough votes to stop the extension of his contract last December and haven't had enough votes to remove him since would like to imagine that President Wilson is 'on the ropes,' he is most certainly not," Trent said.

Wayne State University Board of Governors chair Kim Trent           denounces the criticism of president Roy Wilson during a Board of Governors meeting at Wayne State University.

"In fact, the university is thriving under his stellar leadership and his leadership is being recognized throughout the academic world, except in the minds of these three board members who can't push past their own egos to acknowledge the progress the university continues to make."

"It is sad, indeed, that they would use the occasion of the announcement of the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge to once again show how desperate they are to cast not only President Wilson, but even his team's best ideas, in a negative light," Trent continued.

"In the meantime, the university's administration, our students, faculty, employees and the five board members who are not obsessed with a vote that was taken nearly 11 months ago, will continue to push forward for the good of the institution." 

The dispute over the tuition program is the latest illustration of a continuing divide on the board. A 4-4 split killed plans earlier this year for the university to link up with Henry Ford Health System as its primary medical partner, and four board members sued over actions taken at a June meeting where Wilson was counted as an ex-officio member to allow the four present governors to conduct business.

Wayne State University Governor Dana Thompson criticizes the handling of the University's negotiations with Henry Ford Health System and called on president Roy Wilson to resign.

Matt Lockwood, spokesman for Wayne State, issued a public apology over the lack of notification for the tuition program.

"While we did inform the board chair and work with her in the planning of the event, we regret the entire board was not informed in a timely manner," said Lockwood. "That was clearly an unintentional oversight on the part of the administration, and the oversight was acknowledged to the entire board."

For most announcements, Lockwood continued, Wayne State lets the board know prior to sharing the information with other stakeholders, including media, often on the day the information is released.

"This event was originally going to be more modest, but during the planning we felt it deserved more public attention, and the governor and mayor were invited to speak," said Lockwood. "In retrospect, we should have alerted the entire board at this time."

Addressing concerns about funding of the program, Lockwood said the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge, "is a natural extension of similar scholarships intended to make college more affordable, including Wayne Access, Warrior Way Back and Med Direct.

"It is being funded primarily with revenue from an increase in endowed scholarships from our Pivotal Moments fundraising campaign," Lockwood said. "These kinds of transactions are not subject to board approval."

Wayne State University Governors Sandra Hughes O'Brien, left, and Michael Busuito listen during a Board of Governors meeting at Wayne State University, in Detroit, March 20, 2019. Both Governors criticized president Roy Wilson over the handling of the University's negotiations with Henry Ford Health System.

Busuito said the letter from him, O'Brien and Thompson was prompted by a weekend  column in Crain's Detroit, where group publisher Mary Kramer suggested that the governor should consider removing O'Brien to end the gridlock on the board.

The letter outlined other incidents in recent months and ended with a declaration that Wilson needs to go.

"We will continue to fight to protect University assets from being wasted and to preserve this fine institution so that all citizens of Michigan have access to an affordable, quality education," the letter said. 

"President Wilson is not a leader who is able to execute the ideals and the will of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.  For these reasons, he must leave the University, now."