Supporters call WSU's Wilson 'Warrior strong,' denounce board divisiveness
Detroit — A group supporting Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson is standing behind him at a critical moment, calling on a faction of the university's board that's sought his firing to come together for the good of the university.
Former board members, community members, faculty and students gathered and spoke Tuesday, noting the progress of Wayne State under the leadership of Wilson, who is under siege by four board members.
They pointed to several accomplishments during Wilson's six-year tenure such as the doubling of Wayne State's six-year undergraduate rate, heralded as one of the best in the nation.
"Sadly at a time when the university's leader should be taking a victory lap, a faction of Wayne State's Board of Governors continue to threaten the institution's reputation with public and bitter attacks on the university's president, and their fellow board members" said Gerald Smith, president of GW Smith & Associates, who moderated the gathering.
"We are not here to take sides. We are simply here to ask the board to work together to resolve their differences in a way that does not continue to embarrass this important institution."
Former Wayne State board member Diane Dunaskiss agreed, saying if the board does not unite itself, voters can choose to elect other representatives in the future.
"These board members have lost their way," Dunaskiss said. "We are losing our reputation over this, and it is so sad."
The group came together after several actions by the faction of the Wayne State Board of Governors created unrest and hampered plans by the university, they said, including an effort earlier this year to make Henry Ford Health System its primary medical partner.
The dissent reached a pinnacle last week when the faction opposed to Wilson announced they had fired him during an executive committee meeting. The chair of the board and others said it was not a formal meeting, so no vote was taken.
Among those who spoke in support of Wilson at the Tuesday gathering was Dr. Phillip Levy, a WSU professor of emergency medicine. He said the Wayne State president is a strong leader during a pivotal time in the history of Detroit and the nation.
"Wayne State University is a beacon of hope for the community, and Wayne State University gives people opportunity for upward mobility and growth," Levy said. "Dr. Wilson embodies what it means to be Warrior strong."
Elena Herrada, a representative Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development and Southwest Detroit, added the dissension has been in the news is distracting from real issues for Wayne State.
"We are standing up for the most important institution of Detroit," Herrada said. "We must stabilize Wayne State. We can't do that if we allow petty politics, embarrassing behaviors to attack the president. We have a president that deserves support. ... Wayne State belongs to us."
Among those who voted to fire Wilson last week included governors Michael Busuito, Sandra Hughes O'Brien, Anil Kumar and Dana Thompson. The meeting occurred when one member of the board who supports Wilson, Bryan Barnhill, was working overseas, giving the faction of the board that is opposed to Wilson's leadership the majority.
That faction has been at odds with Wilson for nearly a year when his contract passed 5-3 in December. Soon after, the faction torpedoed 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, prompting a vote that has since been challenged in court.
More recently, the faction said they weren't made aware of the university's Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge until hours before its unveiling last month. The free tuition program had been planned by the university since April, Hughes O'Brien says she was told by university officials on the night that the vote was taken by the board to terminate Wilson.
The faction opposed to Wilson has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel's office to investigate the meeting for validity, but it is still under review.
Reached by phone after the gathering, Hughes O'Brien said the board is not dysfunctional; it is acting as it should, as a check on Wilson.
"If him and his administration are not able to withstand scrutiny by his bosses, that is problematic for him," Hughes O'Brien said. "The board is functional. ... We are a check on him, and that is what we are doing."
Wilson, who was not present at the Tuesday gathering, could not be immediately reached on Tuesday. But last week, Wilson indicated he had no intention of stepping down.
Matt Lockwood, WSU spokesman, said that Wilson is in Phoenix at an annual meeting of the American Association of Medical Colleges, an organization Wilson once served as president.
Former governor Gary Pollard spoke during Tuesday's gathering and said he was the chair of the search committee that hired Wilson in 2013. He expressed his disappointment with the behavior of those board members who do not support Wilson, saying it is "very detrimental to the university" to have the disruptions.
Pollard read from an email from WSU donor Mort Harris, who expressed his beliefs that Wilson has done an "outstanding job" as president and witnessed his effectiveness as a fundraiser for the School of Medicine and how programs that he established expanded the enrollment of students who lacked the resources to attend the university.
"He is a wonderful asset for the university and deserves the thanks and support of the Board of Governors and the broader community," said Pollard, reading from Harris' email.
Pollard said this is one of many communications the university has gotten on behalf of Wilson.
"Dr. Wilson's accomplishments are exactly why he was recruited to Wayne State," Pollard said.
Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the NAACP's Detroit chapter, said she is concerned about the fractured board at the university, the heart of Detroit and said it's "extremely important that we practice unity,"
"We have seen a divided Detroit. We have seen divided institutions," Landrum said. "We know what the outcome is. We also have seen a unified Detroit, and we have seen unified institutions, and we know what that outcome is.
"Let us stand together and support our president, Roy Wilson. Let us stand together and protect our Wayne State University. Let us stand together in unity."
After the gathering, 12 former Wayne State board members issued a statement, saying they were disheartened by four current board members who are “clamoring for the ouster of Dr. M. Roy Wilson as WSU’s President.”
“Their misguided actions are inflicting incalculable harm on a great university whose stability and success are so vital to the educational and economic future of Southeast Michigan,” the statement read.
Besides Dunaskiss, who served from 1995-2018, and Pollard, who served from 2009-16, the statement was signed by former board members Vernice Anthony (1995-98), Denise Lewis (1993-2000), Eugene Driker (2002-14), Paul Massaron (2001-16) , Robert H. Naftaly (1987-94), Michael Einheuser (1975-90), David Nicholson (2013-18), Elizabeth Hardy (1991-2006), Paul Hillegonds (2002-04) and Michael T. Timmis (1991-96).
“Reasonable minds can disagree on substantive issues that come before the board, but elevating those disagreements to personal attacks on the president reflect badly on the entire institution,” the statement read.