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Wayne State board delays budget talks, touts virus response

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Wayne State University officials are delaying a decision on a new budget and plan to extend efforts they say have successfully kept COVID-19 cases low on the urban campus.

During a virtual meeting Friday, the school’s Board of Governors voted to continue operating under the current budget until acting on the next one at another meeting scheduled for Oct. 30.

From left, Wayne State University board members Sandra Hughes O'Brien, Shirley Stancato, Michael Busuito and Bryan Barnhill II listen during a meeting  Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

The move was recommended by the executive committee earlier Friday, board chair Marilyn Kelly said when introducing it. 

The board did not discuss the measure before its unanimous approval.

The governors typically approve the budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, in June.

That month, the board approved a tuition freeze. Annual tuition for in-state students is $11,700.

Although the group did not review full budget proposals Friday, board member Sandra Hughes O’Brien earlier issued a statement criticizing President M. Roy Wilson’s potential plans. She said he “pulled his budget from consideration” because the board would not support it. 

“There are clear policy directions that we disagree with,” O’Brien wrote. “There are budget priorities by Dr. Wilson, such as cutting our WS medical school faculty salaries by 50%. This severe cut in medical school salaries will have a chilling effect on all of our faculty, but especially on the recruitment and retention of black and brown faculty at the school of medicine and therefore it is not a growth strategy for the school or the University.”

A Wayne State spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on O’Brien’s remarks.

For more than a year, the board has been split on a host of issues including Wilson's leadership. There have been acrimonious public debates, lawsuits filed against one another and other moves that many have viewed as not conducive to the mission of the university or serving students.

During board updates Friday, members and administration officials lauded the university response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since July 1, WSU has reported 34 total cases among students and employees, according to its online dashboard.

Provost Laurie Lauzon Clabo, who works with a public health committee involved in the school response, said that “while all the data is very favorable today, given the likelihood of a second fall wave, we know that we could be facing a very challenging semester.”

To prepare, her committee set guidelines to determine how WSU will respond if virus cases rise, including closing campus, she said. 

“We, along with President Wilson, believe that it is incredibly important that those decision points were made in advance and so that should the status of health on our campus change, we are not conducting a debate about what we should do next, that we have committed publicly that these are the actions we will take when we get to a certain point,” Clabo told the board.

For now, she said, the administration expects the winter term will look much like the fall, with most classes held online and fewer students on campus.

The university’s preparations appear to have worked, Michael Wright, another WSU official who led a campus “restart” committee, told the board.

“There are things we keep watch of and we keep working on, but overall it’s been a successful semester so far, and I think when you look at what some of the other universities are going through, we’re doing OK," he said.

Wilson also praised the university's work. "I think I can safely say that we’ve been a model example for the country in terms of the way we’ve done things," he said.