M. ROY WILSON, named the 12th president of Wayne State University, speaks out in an exclusive interview about his vision for the university. – Andre Smith photo
WSU’s new president ready to make big imprint
Dr. M. Roy Wilson, named the 12th president of Wayne State University by its board of governors, is about to be a leader unlike any other the university has had in a long time. And 2014 is going to be a harbinger for things to come as Wilson’s era begins to take shape proper at a university that has long been one of the key organs of the city of Detroit.
While expectations are high for the Harvard trained medical doctor, renowned academecian and former leader in the National Institutes of Health, Wilson is clear about what he wants to do to embolden the university’s standing and upgrade its ranking as a major research learning center.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview in his office recently, Wilson declared in simple terms: Wayne State must have a strong urban mission because “the status quo is unacceptable. We’ve got to do things we’ve never done before and be much more aggressive.”
Those remarks from Wilson come at a time when a 2012 report documented how the university was failing African-Americans students in that only one in 10 Black students was graduating from Detroit’s main university.
“We are just going to have to improve on the graduation rates,” Wilson said as he candidly laid out his vision for the university in 2014 and beyond.
“Students of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds should have an equal opportunity to get a quality higher education experience,” Wilson said. “I believe that it is a moral and ethical imperative for Wayne State to be that kind of university. We’ve got the opportunity to do that.”
Urban universities with their diverse student bodies, both socioeconomically and racially, should be able to have the equal success in graduating students as non-urban schools, Wilson said.
“The university can be a national research university with a national reputation for research and at the same time be a university that is committed to access and opportunity,” he said.
Opening the gates to quality education will be one of his tasks, but Wilson said even though he is coming at a time when expectations are at the peak for him, the university has to do a better job of showing the interconnection between Wayne State and Detroit, and Detroit’s health to the rest of the state.
For a highly successful doctor who is approaching the age of 60, Wilson said he chose to come to Detroit “because I feel this is the place where I could make the biggest contribution. I’m really thinking more in terms of what I can do to make people’s lives better at this point.”
The success of any institution is directly tied to its community engagement and how the organization is perceived in terms of its impact in the life of that community.
In the case of Wayne State, Wilson said Detroit is in a transformative state and he is “acutely aware of the fact that there are segments in Detroit that not participating in that transformation.”
But ultimately he said, “The goal is not just a thriving downtown or Midtown, but rather one Detroit, where all of Detroit can become a thriving great city. Everybody knows Wayne State is one of the anchors of Midtown and I’m very proud of that. I think we’ve got to do more not just for Midtown but for the entire city in helping solve some of the pressing urban issues at this time.”
Wilson gave me a laundry list that included healthcare, environmental issues, housing and other sustainability issues he believes Wayne’s expertise “sprinkled all over the university but not in a cohesive way can really focus on an urban agenda. I think it is important for us to do.”
Part of his role, he explained, is to be an advocate for students, “Trying to make policy makers understand the value that educating these students and putting them into the workforce is one of the things we have to do.”
Wilson said helping students succeed at Wayne State is key because “some just need a little bit more (financial) help that would have made a difference in them staying at the university. I really want us to concentrate on making sure that we don’t let those students fall through the cracks.”
To that end, Wilson has established a presidential fund called Helping Individuals Go Higher (HIGH) which already kicked off with $25,000.
The president himself will raise money for HIGH to help needy and deserving students whose financial strains prevents them from returning to the university.
However, WSU’s new leader did not hesitate to lament over the funding model in Lansing which educators have said sends mixed signals about state support for quality education. The state’s move to performance-based funding, critics say, is limited and the evidence of success is often elusive and hardly known.
“I’m afraid that the state has put in place a metric system without that kind of deep analysis and is based more on political contigency,” Wilson said. “So we have a metric system that isn’t in line with the state’s education values. Because once you do this metric system there are certain incentives for institutions that are benefiting to want to keep it that way.”
On the contrary, Wilson, wants a system that looks at the total picture of performance, taking into consideration the need to credit schools that are helping students of lower economic status make it.
Meanwhile, Wilson said he has met with a number of legislators in Lansing as well as Governor Rick Snyder.
“Some of the legislators I’ve met with really understand that the metric needs to be revisited,” Wilson said. “I think the governor is very outcome driven and is open to looking at transfer students as part of the six-year graduation rate.”
The debate over performance and funding is brewing on the national stage with President Barack Obama’s ambitious program of tying all federal financial aid for higher education to a rating system that considers graduation rate and list of courses completed meeting stiff resistence from university leaders across the country.
“We are going to deliver on a promise we made last year, which is colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer funding go up,” Obama told students at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.”
President Wilson said it is more complicated than that.
“If you come from a family that makes more $100,000 or more a year you have an 85 percent chance of graduating from college. If you come from a family that makes less than $36,000 a year, you have an 8 percent chance of graduating from college,” Wilson explained. “I feel reassured that President Obama and his administration is looking at this very carefully and is not going to put in place something that is going to send the wrong things and penalize the right things.”
Wilson said it is easy to achieve a six-yaear graduation rate if only the students who are been measured are those coming from higher income backgrounds.
What about those from lower income backgrounds who face obstacles by virtue of their environment and other factors that stand in the way of making it through college?
Colleges, he said, should get credit for helping those disadvantaged students succeed.
Any successful school must have the requisite faculty.
“The faculty here by and large is very good, particularly in the areas where there is high research,” Wilson said. “I think we have faculty who are very committed to the population we serve.”
The faculty he said can help Wayne State achieve its urban mission.
The president noted that a new position for the office of institutional diversity is currently being created and appointment will be named soon as well as other senior administration changes that will take place at the university in 2014.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. Email firstname.lastname@example.org