Wayne State University President Wilson set to step down

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson said Monday he will be stepping down as leader of the Detroit-based university in about a year.

"I believe that the time is right for a leadership transition," Wilson, 68, wrote in a letter to the WSU community.

The nine-year president added that Wayne State is well-positioned to continue providing access to the public urban, research university and reach its goal of becoming the top research university for social mobility in the nation.

“Wayne State today is strong and has a promising future,” Wilson said. “Together we have made great strides and I am proud to have served this institution, and privileged to be a part of this community. Wayne State’s values and mission aligned closely with my personal values, and I am deeply grateful that this university gave me my voice as a leader."

Wilson became WSU's 12th president in August 2013. He said he will be stepping down at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, completing a 10-year tenure at the helm of Michigan's third largest public university. His contract expires July 31, 2023.

Wilson's tenure has been marked by many accomplishments but was also wracked by a split governing board for many years, including a faction that wanted him replaced. 

Among Wilson's accomplishments were improvements in student success, fundraising and diversity. 

The Detroit News named Wilson a Michiganian of the Year in 2022 for dramatically improving graduation rates, especially among African-American students.

Also during Wilson's tenure, Wayne State's Pivotal Moments fundraising campaign raised $776.5 million, surpassing its $750 million goal. The campus footprint expanded with additions and renovations to numerous buildings including student housing and the Student Center Building; WSU Fieldhouse in partnership with the Detroit Pistons, the Mike Ilitch School of Business; the STEM Innovation and Learning Center, and the soon-to-be-completed Hilberry Gateway Performance Arts Complex.

“The impact of President Wilson’s transformative leadership will be felt for years to come,” Board of Governors Chairman Mark Gaffney said in a Monday statement. “He has led our campus in putting students and their success above all else, furthering the university’s role in providing life-changing opportunities for all students to earn a college degree. We are grateful for his years of service and commitment.”

Gaffney said the board will begin the search process for a new president this fall.

Wayne State and Wilson struggled for many years when a faction of the university governing board that included Michael Busuito, Dana Thompson, Anil Kumar and former board member Sandra Hughes O'Brien fought about many issues and led to the derailing of WSU's talks to expand a partnership between Henry Ford Health System and the university medical school.

Some of those board critics said Wilson should have left the university then.

Busuito said Monday the tensions on the board have calmed down in recent years but individual members had the best interests of Wayne State at heart during the political infighting.

Wilson has "been a pleasure to work with" in recent years, he said, and the president made the best decision for the university.

Wayne State has numerous department chair positions that are open and it's hard to attract people to join the university when a president may be departing, Busuito said.

He also noted that Wilson's 10-year tenure at the end of next academic year is unusual in the world of university presidents.

"Because of the nature of the universities nowadays and the politics surrounding them, it’s like NFL coaches: They get five or six years and they are moving on.” Busuito said.

It is unclear what will be Wilson's next step. He said in his letter that he did not have a home before coming to Wayne State but "going forward I will always proudly call Wayne State and Detroit my home.”

Wilson served at numerous other institutions before coming to Wayne State, including as deputy director for strategic scientific planning and program coordination at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health.

He said that deciding to depart a position is key to being a leader.

"After leading multiple institutions, I had come to realize that a leader is most effective when they find their voice. For that reason, nine years ago, I sought to lead a university with institutional attributes — public, urban, diverse, very high research and inextricably connected to its community — that closely aligned with my personal values.

"I knew when I first stepped on campus and explored the surrounding community that Wayne State was just such a university. Wayne State gave me my voice, and I am deeply appreciative."