AG's office says vote to oust Wayne State leader invalid

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson remains at the helm of the university, despite a disputed vote to remove him last month by members of the Board of Governors.

But whether the chaos calms down among the board's divided members is less clear.

The Michigan Attorney General's Office issued an opinion Friday that the Nov. 5 vote by four board members to fire Wilson did not occur at a properly convened meeting.

In a letter issued minutes before Friday's WSU board meeting, Deputy Attorney General Kelly Keenan wrote to Wayne State general counsel Louis Lessem sayingthat the office "takes no issue with ... your position that board action must be taken properly."

WSU President M. Roy Wilson

"We are persuaded that any future meeting of the board on the matter of President Wilson's term of office should be conducted as a formal session of the board open to the public in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution, the tradition of our democracy, and the need for public access to the workings of public institutions and agencies."

Friday's meeting brought out hordes of people, including about a dozen attendees who spoke in support of Wilson.

Among them was former President Allan Gilmour, who joked that he never expected to return to the university. But the conflict between the board members, and the impact it is having on the university's reputation, prompted him to speak out.

"I come here concerned, worried and sad," said Gilmour. "This state of affairs cannot continue."

He added, "Either the board will fix it, or someone else will."

Former WSU board member Diane Dunaskiss also spoke, delivering a zinger to Wilson's opponents, Governors Michael Busuito, Sandra Hughes O'Brien, Dana Thompson and Anil Kumar.

She told them they have lost their vision and need to regain it.

"If you'd like help, I can recommend an ophthalmologist," Dunaskiss said, referring to Wilson, a trained ophthalmologist and researcher. 

Busuito wanted to give a presentation about his and his colleagues' concerns. But not enough board members voted to allow him to do so.

"We didn’t bring cheerleaders here," he said. "We brought facts." 

After the meeting, Thompson said people came out in support of Wilson but they didn't deal with the real issue, "which is the fiduciary responsibility of the board to work with the president to make sure that we are protecting the fiscal assets and students' resources."

 "Not one person has addressed the president's responsibility for developing a good relationship with the board, not picking and choosing who he is going to work with because he knows he is going to get a favorable outcome."

Asked what she expects will happen in the future, Thompson said, "We will continue to do what we need to do to protect the university."

Hughes O'Brien was more blunt.

"When a president has lost the confidence of half of the board, half of his board, it's time for him to go," she said. "He is one flat tire away from being fired. Is this sustainable? It's not."

During a recess of the meeting Friday, Wilson said he had no comment on the opinion from the attorney general's office.

After the meeting, he declined comment again but pointed out the smile on his face.

Board chair Kim Trent said there was never any doubt that Wilson remained president and that he will continue to lead Wayne State until a majority of board members vote for him not to be or "he decides to leave after a very distinguished, long and amazing career here."

Wilson's tenure has been under question ever since the Nov. 5 executive committee meeting, when a four-member majority of those present voted to fire him.

After Lessem read the attorney general office's opinion, Trent declared that "Wilson is president."

The standing room-only crowd erupted in applause.

The eight-member board is evenly split between supporters and opponents of Wilson, but during the Nov. 5 session, one of Wilson's supporters, Bryan Barnhill, was absent, giving opponents the majority.

Trent and and other Wilson supporters said the vote had no legal standing because it did not occur in a formal meeting.

Hughes O'Brien had asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to review the meeting.

Busuito, Hughes O'Brien, Thompson and sometimes Kumar have been at odds with Wilson for months. One year ago, signs of dissension emerged when Wilson's contract was extended during a lame-duck board session by a vote of 5-3.

Since then, many incidents have happened, including the faction that opposes his leadership torpedoing 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 on a real estate transaction that has since been challenged in court.

The board deadlocked 4-4 in September on whether to adopt a proposed code of conduct for itself, and a vote on the issue at Friday's meeting ended in an identical tie, defeating the measure. Both times, Wilson supporters backed the measure, while the rest of the board opposed it.

The effort to remove Wilson on Nov. 5 came after a health affairs subcommittee meeting attended by seven of WSU's eight-member board, 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 the next day. The motion passed with four votes while the other three members who support Wilson walked out.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com