Editorial: WSU board standoff demands intervention

The Detroit News
President of Wayne State University Roy Wilson March 20, 2019.

Dysfunction on the Wayne State Board of Governors has reached a level that calls for intervention. It’s time for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to step in. 

Three members of the board are causing the most problems, and have made it their mission to try to oust President M. Roy Wilson. The board remains mired in a 4-4 split, and the factions aren’t budging. 

The state Constitution offers the governor broad authority to remove misbehaving or incompetent elected officials, but it’s a power that most governors are reluctant to tap — and the process could take awhile. 

But this situation at Wayne State demands action. 

Seven of the eight WSU board members are Democrats, giving the Democratic governor considerable influence in brokering a solution.

Whitmer should call in the board and try to get to the bottom of this dispute, which seems rooted in personal animosity some of the dissenting board members have toward Wilson.

If Whitmer can't push the board to a working relationship, she should selectively remove members and replace them with governors who will act in the best interest of the university.

Board members Michael Busuito, Sandra Hughes O’Brien and Dana Thompson, and sometimes Anil Kumar, opposed Wilson over several initiatives, including switching its medical school affiliation to the Henry Ford Health System from the Detroit Medical Center. And this faction recently voted to remove him in a meeting of questionable legality. 

More:Wilson fends off faction's effort to fire him from WSU

More:Editorial: WSU board should get off Wilson's back

Wilson is staying around, with the support of the remaining four board members, challenging the process that led to the removal vote. 

We hope he sticks to that position. Wilson has been good for Wayne State. During Wilson's tenure he's worked to make college more affordable for students and graduation rates have climbed dramatically to 48% in 2019 from 26% in 2011. Rates have also increased for black and Hispanic students, and in 2018 WSU received the Degree Completion Award from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

Wilson has also sought to bring the loosely governed medical school under more direct oversight of the university. 

Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, says the board is misguided in its attacks on Wilson.

“Dr. Wilson is assuredly a high-value leadership asset in today’s national higher education marketplace," Hurley says. "His continued strong dedication to leading Wayne State University, even amidst the current governance dysfunction, is most commendable and is certainly beneficial to moving the institution’s agenda forward during this time of turbulence.”

The infighting among board members is threatening the reputation of the university — even potentially its accreditation. Wayne State faces a number of challenges that require the full attention of both Wilson and the board.

Chief among them are complaints from the Higher Learning Commission, WSU's accrediting institution, which called for an independent investigation into board meddling. Yet the board remains split on taking corrective action. And this month, the WSU-affiliated neurosurgery training program at the Detroit Medical Center lost its accreditation.

Wayne State is searching for a new dean for its medical school. If this isn't resolved, it will be tougher to attract a top candidate. It will also discourage student applicants for the medical program, who want certainty that their four to seven years of academic work will be certified.  

WSU is essential to Michigan. It serves a large number of low income and minority students, and it has been a major contributor to Detroit's ongoing comeback.

Whitmer needs to take a close look at what’s going on at the university and weigh her options.