New Wayne State governor on Wilson: 'A genuine person'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — During the 18 years she served as president and CEO of New Detroit, Shirley Stancato worked with leaders in civil rights, human services, health, business, labor and education.

Among them was Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, who served on the board for five years while she was at the helm of the coalition working for racial understanding and equity in Detroit.

Shirley Stancato

A year has passed since Stancato retired. But she will be working with Wilson again when she begins her duties this month as a new member of the Wayne State Board of Governors.

Stancato is stepping onto a board that has been sharply divided for more than a year over numerous issues, including Wilson's leadership. 

While Stancato declined to comment on the board's fractured relations during an interview with The Detroit News, she talked about Wilson: She said she doesn't know his work at Wayne State and hasn't even had a meeting with him. But she spoke highly of his character.

"He's a great human being," said Stancato. "He's a genuine person. He was very active and involved on New Detroit's board, along with the other leaders. He's a leader and took the work very seriously."

All eyes will be on Stancato when she takes her seat on the fractured WSU board during its first 2020 meeting on Jan. 31.

Stancato is filling the remaining year in the unexpired term of Kim Trent, the former chair of the board, who is leaving to work for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration in the Department of Labor Economic Opportunity leadership team starting Monday.

Stancato said she agreed to serve on the Wayne State board because of her loyalty to Detroit and her belief that education is the key to improving the lives of city residents.

"Education is really important because it closes the gap, it makes a difference for the haves and have-nots," said Stancato. "If you live in poverty, if you get an education, that's the quickest way to move out of poverty."

Though retired, Stancato has been busy serving on numerous boards, many related to education. Among them: Teach For America Detroit, the Coleman A. Young Foundation, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Fifth Third Bank Eastern Michigan and Warrior Women Against Poverty.

She also served on the boards of Excellent Schools Detroit and the Education Achievement Authority, a former state-run district for failing schools.

While at New Detroit, Stancato said she and other leaders spoke at length about how education affects so many other aspects of people's well-being.

Shirley Stancato, then president and CEO of New Detroit poses for a photo at the New Detroit offices in Detroit on June 21, 2017.

"We always talked about closing the gap in Detroit. In every single category — home ownership, poverty, income, education — there's a gap between people of color and white," she said. "How to close the gap? Education is a key piece."

Stancato said Wayne State is very important to her, and not just because it's where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology and her master's degree in industrial relations.

Wayne State is an urban university with many first-generation college students and one of the top employers in the region, she said.

"It's an anchor institution in Midtown," Stancato said. "It's also a multicultural mecca. All different kinds of folks work there, go to school there and communicate together and it stands so much for what the real world is really like, from a multicultural perspective."

Stancato will face a number of contentious issues as a board member, beginning with her votes for the board's chair and vice chair, which members decide at the beginning of every year.

Governor Marilyn Kelly is the interim chair who stepped in after Trent accepted the job in the Whitmer administration. Kelly will need five votes to remain chair, but the board was divided 4-4 before Trent's departure.

The areas of disagreement between the factions included the university's search for a new medical partner, a land deal aimed at housing pediatric offices and whether Wilson should remain president. 

In the near future, Stancato will likely have to take positions on those and other issues.

Sandra Hughes O'Brien, a WSU board member who wants Wilson fired, said she doesn't expect much to change on the board with Stancato's arrival. 

"It will be interesting to see whether she will keep the status quo," said Hughes O'Brien. "Or is she going to be an independent thinker?"

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and a member of New Detroit's board of directors, said he can't think of a better person than Stancato to serve on the Wayne State board right now.

"She has the highest level of integrity,” said Manna. “She has been working for years on building coalitions and working with leaders, mainly on racial equity. In these scenarios, she has worked across both sides of the aisle with many different egos. If anyone can be a moderate, calming voice, it would be her.”

Asked what she thinks about those who want Wilson fired, Stancato said she is going into her new role thinking about Wayne State as a whole.

"All of that is put together so people can graduate, and be educated," said Stancato. "So for me, that is the issue."

Stancato used to be the senior vice president of what is now known as Chase Bank. She said when she was deciding to go to New Detroit in 2000, she had a conversation with the late Bill Beckham, then the head of New Detroit who was moving on to be the president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.

Stancato said she and Beckham were discussing racial justice, how to close the gap between black and white residents, and the numerous issues involved. How, she wanted to know, did he keep everything straight with so many puzzle pieces?

"He said, 'Shirley, I stay focused on the issue,'" Stancato said. "If the issue is education and educating our young people, let's focus on how we get that done. So, staying focused on the issue. The issue is educating people."

Stancato said that perspective — concentrating on the best way to educate Wayne State students — will guide her as a governor.

"If we stay focused on that," Stancato said, "the decisions that we make will all be based on the best way to get folks educated, and move forward."