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graduating to greatness.

The tenure of Dr. M. Roy Wilson as President of Wayne State University in Midtown Detroit has been marked by incredible transformation.

His guidance has seen a $26.5 million renovation of the Student Center Building and the Fountain Court green space, an overhaul of student housing and the grand opening of the stunning Mike Ilitch School of Business. With more major projects on the way — including the $65 million Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex and STEM Innovation Learning Center — the gleaming campus rejuvenation has been a crown jewel in Detroit’s recent rise.

Beyond beautiful new facilities though, Dr. Wilson and First Lady Jacqueline Wilson are also striving to make change on an even deeper level:

The human level.

Dr. Wilson states it straight. “There were a number of things on my agenda first coming here, but at the very top of the list were two things: First, the student success rate was dismally low, especially among minority students — that was something that needed to be addressed immediately. The second is that we are a Carnegie Research One Institution, or a very high research institution, which is a category that many of universities aspire to. However, from 2003 and 2013 — a time when most universities saw a boost in their research — we were one of the only universities in the country that had a decrease in external funding for research. So, I knew I had to address that immediately as well.”

Realigning the university's research divisions to emphasize team science, opening the $90 million IBio multi-disciplinary research facility and cluster-hiring scientists helped tackle the research funding problem, but the student success rate was another animal entirely. 

Dr. Wilson’s first step was implementing a strategy to develop the pipeline of underrepresented students; forging a coalition of Detroit-based universities and colleges to launch the NIH-funded Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Program and launching the Wayne Med-Direct program to guarantee med-school admission for exceptionally talented high school students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We’re very dependent on the pipeline of students from Detroit, so we try to nurture that pipeline by showing high school students that Wayne State might be realistic for them.”

Dr. Wilson then took the commitment to student diversity and well-being one step further by creating the position of Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer... Along with the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement.

First Lady Jacqueline is fighting the good fight as well. While championing Detroit recruiting efforts in the city’s middle and high schools she also launched the HIGH (Helping Individuals Go Higher) Program with the goal of ensuring that no Wayne State student abandons their dream of earning a degree because of housing challenges. 

“The HIGH program is doing quite well, and it’s helping a lot of kids who would normally drop out, so I’m very proud of that. Making sure students don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help is something that allows them to actually reach out and say, ‘I don’t have enough money. I’m going through a crisis. Can someone please help me? 

In addition to helping students succeed, it’s also raised awareness about the university overall because we are the only one in the nation that actually has a program to help homeless or precariously housed students. Ultimately, we’re trying to make sure we don’t have students who are homeless or precariously housed, but if something happens in their life that causes them to be in need, we have this program in place to help provide resources such as housing support, textbooks, clothing, transportation and child-care assistance.”

This veritable laundry list of successes wasn’t always a forgone conclusion.

When coming to Detroit for the first time in 2013, they didn’t know what to expect. As an outsider at the time, Jacqueline was rightfully apprehensive.

“My initial expectations were on the negative side because I had heard primarily bad things about Detroit. The bankruptcy hadn't even started at that point, so I was uncertain about the safety and basic city services. But I was open to change and hoping for the best.”

Undeterred by the bad press swirling around the bankruptcy, Dr. Wilson knew that Wayne State was where he wanted to be even before opportunity came knocking.

“After working for the federal government at the National Institute of Health, I really wanted to do something where I could make more immediate impact. While having dinner with a friend, I was mentioning how I missed being an academic. I’ve been at a lot of different universities, private, public, big, small, rural and urban. I mentioned that if I did go back, I would want it to be public. I would want it to be urban. I would want it to have high research and a medical school because those are my interests. And finally, I wanted it to be intimately connected to the community. My friend asked to name a university — because that’s a lot of marks to check off — and I said, Wayne State… Before I was even thinking about Wayne State or Detroit. Then, about six months later, I got a call out of the blue asking if I might be interested in looking at this opportunity.”

After that fateful call, his first visit to campus gave him an honest look at what the opportunity would mean.

“I asked the interview committee if I could spend a day or two in Detroit near the campus. No other candidate had asked that. But I wanted to get a real feel for the city. So I walked to the coffee shop — the only one open at the time — and a restaurant a couple of miles down the road in the mid-Woodward area.”

Recounting the story, he quips, “I found out later that the Wayne State Police were following me everywhere because the area really wasn’t the way it is now.”

Not discouraged by his unexpected escort or the state of the area at that time, that trip convinced him to accept the offer.

“I knew there were some challenges, but at the same time I thought the campus was beautiful and I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I thought this was a beautiful urban campus and I started seeing so much potential in the area that I really got excited about coming and being a part of it.”

Indeed, he and Jacqueline have done precisely that, going above and beyond the typical call of duty of both university president and first lady.

“I consider it our responsibility to reach out beyond the university, so what I’ve done over the past six years is not just stay in my office pushing paper around, but actually getting involved in a lot of things that may not be traditionally considered as the job of a university president. I’ve worked with several boards that are concerned with the betterment of Detroit — like the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the Workforce Development Task Force — because things like that are just so important for Detroit, and what’s important for Detroit is important to Wayne State. 

Those efforts on behalf of the community are paying off just as strongly as the couple’s on-campus initiatives, and Dr. Wilson senses a true sea change in the attitudes of students and people he meets.

“I do think there has been a turnaround in that a lot of kids now are staying in Detroit — or even coming to Detroit — rather than going somewhere like Chicago. One reason is that the cost of living is lower, but it’s also just becoming a very exciting city. Wherever you go, whether it’s New York or Los Angeles, there’s a buzz among the young people that Detroit is the up and coming place to go.”

Jacqueline experiences that same progress in their neighborhood every day.

“To see things like families walking along Cass and Palmer or walking their dogs to the park, I think that’s been the biggest change for me. Initially, we felt like there were very few other residents besides us because, for the most part, everybody left the city at five and went to the suburbs. So it’s nice to see that this is actually becoming a vibrant community again.”

Reflecting on their time thus far in Detroit, perhaps Jacqueline says it best:

“We wanted to take the opportunity to be at the ground level of something spectacular… And so far, it’s been spectacular.”