Editorial: WSU board should get off Wilson's back

The Detroit News

Whether the firing of Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson at a legally questionable meeting will stand is not the most relevant question facing the university.

It's more to the point to ask why an academic leader as accomplished as Wilson would stay in such a toxic environment? As a physician who is gaining national attention for improving WSU's graduation rates, especially among African American students, Wilson has options.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson

Not so for the four trustees who are trying to drive him out of Detroit, and now must answer an even more pressing query: Who do they think they can attract to replace him? 

A top level candidate experienced in running a university with a medical school would be as crazy to step into such a dysfunctional environment as Wilson is for staying.

The eight members of the university board are split down the middle on Wilson's presidency, as they are on most other issues. The feuding factions have placed WSU's reputation and its medical school at risk.

At a meeting Monday night, four anti-Wilson trustees led by Michael Busuito took advantage of the absence of a pro-Wilson trustee, Bryan Barnhill, to take a vote on firing Wilson. It passed 4-3, with the additional support of members Dana Thompson, Sandra Hughes O'Brien and Anil Kumar. 

Board Chairwoman Kim Trent, who supports Wilson, says the vote doesn't count because the session was not an official executive committee meeting and may have violated the state's Open Meetings Act. She was backed by Marilyn Kelly and Mark Gaffney. 

This is bound for a courtroom, in all likelihood.

Meanwhile, the damage to WSU's credibility is mounting. Should Wilson go, either voluntarily or by force, it's hard to imagine a board this divided could come to an agreement on a replacement — if a suitable one could be recruited.

Coaxing a new president to come to Wayne will not be easy unless the board can demonstrate its full support for the new hire.

The primary public dispute centers on Wilson's efforts to move WSU's medical school affiliation to the Henry Ford Health System. Wayne has had a contentious relationship with its current partner, the Detroit Medical Center.

A lawsuit filed last month by a DMC physicians group accuses Wilson and former Vice President of Health Affairs David Hefner of diverting more than $330 million over six years from doctors treating Medicaid patients "to mask WSU's mounting financial losses." Both dispute the allegations. The FBI is reportedly investigating.

Under Wilson's leadership, WSU posted the largest six-year graduation rate improvement in the nation last year, increasing to 47% from 26%. The president also just announced the Heart of Detroit promise, guaranteeing free tuition to any graduate of a Detroit school who qualifies academically.

Wilson has been a good president, and shouldn't have to work in an environment where he's constantly being undermined. That he stays is a reflection of the commitment he has to Wayne State and Detroit.

His opponents on the board may succeed in running him off. But good luck to them in finding a new president of equal skill and stature.