Service Degree

Wayne State’s new president charts a course to boost the graduation rate.

Can a university strive to be a premier urban research institution and still accept as many students as possible? “Some people say we can’t do both, that we need to be more selective in terms of student grade point averages, but I disagree,” says M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University in Detroit. “I think you can do both, and we will.”

Since arriving on campus in July, becoming Wayne State’s 12th president, Wilson hasn’t let any dust settle. During a recent interview, Wilson was quick to set lofty — yet what he says are achievable — goals. “One of the first things I did when I got the position was to Google comments from our students, and it was clear we had some issues with student services,” he says.

While the university has completed several capital improvement projects in recent years, including an expansion of the engineering school, new student housing, added retail, and a state-of-the-art exercise complex, Wilson notes that the relationship between students and faculty needs attention.

“Our retention rate is low, but I don’t think we have a culture that we will do everything possible and bend over backward to help our students,” he says. “We have to develop a culture that, if a student comes here and is willing to put in the work, then we must make sure they graduate. We’re in the service industry, to an extent, and we need to go above and beyond the norm.”

As public funding of colleges and universities has dwindled, Wilson says the decline in support has to be picked up elsewhere. “TechTown, our incubation complex that began under (former WSU) President Irvin Reid, is a fantastic program, and we need to take it to the next level,” he says.

Currently, the university spins off six or seven companies a year from research efforts on campus. “We need to create more businesses, patents, and exclusive licenses, all of which will allow us to generate more revenue,” he says. “We’re catching up on startups, but we need to get technology out faster. We need to work more synergistically. We can’t have a lone professor working on a research project; rather, we need to build dynamic teams of researchers.”

Wilson says the university might look to tap some portion of $100 million in funding as part of President Obama’s brain research program.  “The brain project is not medicine alone,” he says. “You need mathematicians, engineers, technicians, computer scientists, and many other disciplines, and we have it all on campus.” db