When I met with President M. Roy Wilson after he accepted the Wayne State University presidency, I found that there was much on which we agreed. First of all, that the problems of our School of Medicine were paramount. WSU is in the highest category of research universities only because of the scholarly activities of our medical school. Its success is vital for our future. We both agreed that the relationship between the medical school and the Detroit Medical Center was a burgeoning problem. I came away from my first meetings with President Wilson optimistic and full of hope that maybe we would be making progress under his leadership.
Wilson and Hefner.
After President Wilson came to town, things changed. He hired, with no search process and no consultation with the administrators and faculty of the medical and other affected schools, Mr. David Hefner as his Vice President for Health Affairs. Mr. Hefner is not a doctor; his only relevant degree is a Masters of Pubic Administration. He was to be paid an acknowledged $500,000 for a half-time position, and much later we discovered that he was also paid an unacknowledged amount that increased his pay to over $800,000 a year (Detroit News, March 14, 2019). Mr. Hefner brought in other expensive consultants. Mr. Hefner’s record at other institutions is that of a top-down, my-way-or-the-highway health business executive.
Wilson and Hefner’s Impact.
Mr. Hefner’s efforts were, in the end, disastrous. When he came to WSU, our Department of Pediatrics was among the top 20 programs in the country. Today, it is facing the final stages of its destruction. A major factor in this was Mr. Hefner’s heavy-handed tactics. In a meeting (August 2017) with the Pediatrics faculty, he told them, with President Wilson and the medical school Dean present, that if his proposed new agreement was not signed that faculty would not be paid from the coming November. He told the President of the University Pediatricians, “I will crush you,” if she did not support his proposed new agreement with the WSU Administration. When the University Physicians Group, the general faculty practice plan, went bankrupt, the Pediatrics faculty discovered that President Wilson had allowed Mr. Hefner to divert substantial Medicaid funds intended for service providers to other purposes as “institutional adjustments.” The Detroit News (October 30, 2019) has reported that there is a current FBI investigation into that matter. Today, as a result of the Wilson-Hefner decisions, our Pediatrics faculty members are facing a future that neither they nor anyone else wanted, as adjunct faculty members of the Central Michigan University medical school, and it appears that they will soon no longer be members of our faculty. It may not be too late to avoid this outcome, but nobody, particularly President Wilson, is trying to head it off. Without an effective Pediatrics Department, the medical school’s accreditation may be in jeopardy.
The Henry Ford Failure.
Mr. Hefner suggested to the School of Medicine’s Faculty Executive Committee that he, with his knowledge of the health business environment and his contacts, would negotiate a new and favorable agreement with the Tenet Corporation, the owners of the DMC. He failed. He and President Wilson then turned to the Henry Ford Health System to negotiate an agreement for it to become our clinical partner. This was done with little consultation with the medical school faculty or the WSU Board of Governors. When our Board of Governors came to understand the proposal’s details, a majority felt that it delivered far too much control over our medical school to Henry Ford. When I read the proposal, I agreed. A majority (6 to 2) of the Board rejected it and ordered the President to fire Mr. Hefner. He did.
WSU’s Urban Mission.
President Wilson’s leadership is also problematic in a different area: WSU’s urban mission. The University has increased its percentage of African-American students who graduate in six years. This was done, however, by dramatically cutting the overall number of African-American students attending WSU: in 2009 there were over 8,000; in 2018 there were just over 4,000. The Administration raised the entrance requirements to a level which excluded many less well-prepared Black students who came from academically weak high schools. The Wilson Administration has acknowledged that the much-publicized Detroit Promise program will have an impact on only around 100 or so students. Wayne State’s opportunity to help thousands of Detroit area African-American students through admissions and remedial help became, instead, a publicity stunt involving a small number of students that enticed both Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan to appear at its announcement.
Managing Board Relations.
The problems that face Wayne State are serious and stubborn. Much time has been lost in meeting them during the five-year tenure of President Wilson. Conflict escalated with the WSU Board over such matters as his contract extension, utilizing the votes of two members of the Board who had already been defeated in the recent election. Attempts to frame the conflict as a matter of race have only needlessly exacerbated quarrels. The political maneuvering at the Board level has undermined its and the President’s effectiveness. In any university, the management of its Board is a paramount job of its president. President Wilson has been ineffective in this role at WSU, leading to the current paralysis in leadership.
President Wilson’s Challenge.
Given the record, if President Wilson is to survive in the present situation, he must change. He must devise programs and plans that appeal to most, and preferably all, members of the Board and across the University. He has personally attacked individual members of the Board and that must stop. He must accept that all Board members are equally legitimate representatives of the voters of Michigan who elected them. However much it pains him, he must work with them all.
Can President Wilson do this? I do not know, but the past record does not inspire great confidence. But, the challenge is his and his alone.
Charles J. Parrish
President, AAUP-AFT, Local 6075, WSU Chapter
Vice President-at-Large, AFT Michigan
President, AAUP Michigan Conference
Member-at-Large, National Council, AAUP
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Detroit, MI 48202