Wayne State University is Detroit’s pride. Its strategic location in this major African-American city provides the university an unparalleled opportunity to shape Detroit’s educational future while guaranteeing an empowering education to all who come from far and near from across the globe to get a Wayne State education.
Aside from being one of the largest employers of labor, Wayne State is positioned to make a significant impact, especially at a time when Detroit’s economic crisis has made this major and historic urban center a global critical focus.
The international media and everyone else is watching how Detroit evolves from this historic financial state of affairs. In watching how Detroit evolves, the global press is also watching with a geopolitical lens how institutions that have historically been the pillar of growth and development in this city are responding to the larger challenges facing a city whose potential is greater than its definition.
For example, it was only two weeks ago that I received an email from one of Europe’s most influential newspapers, Le Monde Diplomatique, published in French and English and also in 25 other languages, seeking my perspective on the bankruptcy in Detroit which has direct correlation with the educational values and strengths of the city.
A city is as good as its level of educational power and potential. A city can only make collective progress if its educational institutions are living up to their promise to the present and the future.
That is why the transition of the apex leadership at Wayne State University is significant at this crucial time. The appointment of Dr. Roy M. Wilson as the 12th president of this important urban university by the Board of Governors, chaired by Debbie Dingell, could not have come at a better time when educational institutions — big and small — are being challenged to do more than just exist in name, billboards and framed certificates.
The contemporary challenges we face are forcing educational institutions to change and to adapt to new realities to shape the future of tomorrow’s leaders.
In the past seven years I’ve met frequently with the last two former presidents of Wayne State — Jay Noren and Allan Gilmour — to either get an update on how the university is progressing under their leadership or how to chart a way forward beyond the non-progressive culture.
I recalled in one of my meetings Gilmour described that culture as “the Wayne way,” which he admitted has not been helpful in strengthening the performance of the university or increasing efficiency, but that did not stop him from pushing to tear down those layers of bureaucracy.
For Gilmour, it was about being efficient and getting things done, and then explain the rest to him later.
I found Gilmour to be refreshing given that he was willing to take on what he saw as some of the intractable problems the university was facing and he wanted to create a new direction of bold leadership.
Both Gilmour and Noren were equally concerned about what direction the university should take, and how it does so in an age where public education is often slapped around by clueless politicians instead of getting more support.
But one thing was consistent. In all of the meetings Noren and Gilmour made it clear that there is an opportunity for the university to be on a new level of recognition to meet the increasing challenges of an urban education in a global competitive space.
Bankruptcy aside, Detroit is an opportunity city. Perhaps no one knows that better than Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures who has bought almost every other building downtown and is rewriting the narrative of Detroit, once written off as a dying city.
In my most recent meeting with Gilbert he shared a vision of Detroit where all stakeholders are playing their part with diligence, committed to changing the culture of passivity in favor of a culture of serious involvement and real engagement in the community.
To underscore his belief in the viability of the Detroit brand, Gilbert shared with me letters from non-Detroiters who want to have a stake in the future of the city.
One of the letters that stood out as I read it over in his office was from Joshua Zhang, a 2014 degree candidate in economics at Harvard University.
“I apologize for cluttering your inbox, but I have an extreme interest in rebuilding the city of Detroit and am eager to hear your perspective regarding the future developments and apportunities available,” Zhang wrote.
“As a rising senior at Harvard, I have already secured offers from both Goldman Sachs and Barclays in their investment banking division, but am searching for something a bit more meaningful. I’ve considered doing my time on Wall Street and then returning to the city with my newfound set of skills one day, but wanted to gain an understanding of your assessment of the current situation. If exciting things are happening in Detroit now, I want to be part of the action.”
Thus, President Wilson has an apportunity to not only make an imprint on the university itself, but also in the larger community which lends itself as a survey pool and an evaluation incubator for how the university performs.
Come 2014, as Harvard’s Zhang set his sights on Detroit’s opportunities and his determination to make a difference in the city, let it be that Wayne State is producing thinkers who are equally passionate about the city and ready to make their own contributions.
Let it be said that President Wilson is the insightful and pragmatic game changer the university has been awaiting, ready to make the university respond more appropriately to the diverse needs of metro Detroit — from the less than optimal state of the Detroit health care climate to its high unemployment state and challenged public educational system.
If a well-meaning university exists in a city, where there is a high rate of unemployment, such university is duty-bound to run programs that are geared towards providing meaningful solutions to those problems. It is important for such a university to maintain effective, credible and consistent lines of communication with various stakeholders and community groups that are at the center of socioeconomic transformation.
The Detroit of today is different from the Detroit of Noren and Gilmour. And as Wayne State continues on the path with other stakeholders in the transformation of Detroit, its climax would be that Dr. M. Roy Wilson presided over a Wayne State that produced the new generation of innovators and investors who will take the city to lofty new heights, strongly believing in Detroit’s history, present dispensation and future.
Welcome to Detroit, President Wilson. Your era has begun.