Season 1, Episode 4 - President M. Roy Wilson

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson offers a rare glimpse into his remarkable personal history while discussing his upcoming memoir, to be published by WSU Press.  

Episode notes

In this episode of the Today@Wayne Podcast, WSU President M. Roy Wilson talks with host Darrell Dawsey about his soon-to-be-published memoir, his transformative professional journey from medicine to education administration and growing up as a multisport athlete.


Dr. M. Roy Wilson became the 12th president of Wayne State University on August 1, 2013. Since assuming leadership, President Wilson has pursued his vision to transform the university into the preeminent public, urban research university known for academic and research excellence.

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Darrell Dawsey: Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. As he moves toward his eighth year as president of Wayne State University, Dr. M. Roy Wilson has left an impact that extends far beyond the campus and well past academics. Working to realize his vision of WSU as one of the preeminent public research universities in the nation, President Wilson has, along the way, forged strong bonds with business and community leaders, and has led the charge for Wayne State to deepen its commitment, not just to academic excellence, but also to diversity, equity and social justice. And as the coronavirus ravaged the city and the state over the past year, President Wilson has also assumed a critical role as a trusted medical advisor for state leaders toiling to bring the outbreak under control.

Now, with fall coming, and with Detroit joining the rest of the nation — it's moved toward turning the corner on the pandemic — President Wilson finds himself not just looking ahead, but also looking back, reflecting on his own personal journey, on his work at WSU and on the legacy he's crafted. And now he joins us here on the Today@Wayne podcast to talk about that journey, how it began and how it's going. Welcome, President Wilson.

M. Roy Wilson: It's nice to see you, Darrell.

Dawsey: Always good to have you. Always good to have you. So we've — at least those of us here in the campus community, and I think other folks who've watched you on social media certainly heard a lot of the messaging that you've been putting out over the past several months about the pandemic, about Wayne State's commitment to the science, about the measures that we've taken to try and control the outbreak and ensure the safety of our students and our staff and our administrators … so folks are well-versed on a lot of that.

We've heard a lot of that from you, but I'm finding out there are a few things that maybe we don't know. There may be a few things that you were working on, that to the point that I was making, when we started that give us a look back as well as a look forward. So I want to give you an opportunity today to talk a little bit about that. I'm going to try and keep it a little bit lighthearted if we can.

Now, the first thing I want to talk about that I heard is that you had mentioned in some of the videos that you are working on a book — on a memoir. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that, how's it going? And when can we expect to see it?

Wilson: Well, first of all, it's going a little slower than I would like. It actually is really hard writing a memoir, but it's going. The first thing was to figure out who I was going to use as a publisher. That really is an important decision. And I thought about the Big Five and various other publishers, and then I settled on Wayne [State] University Press — because as president of this institution, we've got a world-renowned university press. I thought that it would only be appropriate for me to use Wayne [State] University Press, and so that major decision is now behind me. And so I'm about two weeks away from being able to send a completed copy to the editor, and then that goes into a whole another phase then, when the editor is going to change everything around and ask me to write a little bit more here or there, or take out this or that story. So it's still going to take a little bit of time, but I anticipate it will be published next summer.

Dawsey: I've been fortunate enough to write four books, and trust me when I tell you: You definitely still have a slog ahead of you. So my sympathies — I wish you all the best on that. What's the title? Do you have a working title for it yet?

Wilson: Yeah, I do. The working title is The Plum Tree Blossoms Even in Winter.

Dawsey: OK. OK.

Wilson: It's a provocative title, right?

Dawsey: A little cryptic, too. Tell us what it means.

Wilson: So the plum tree, it's unique — the Japanese plum tree, particularly, because unlike most other trees, the blossom comes out in the late winter. It comes out really early in the year, usually in the late winter. So what it signifies or symbolizes — and that's part of what this book is about is how, even in the darkest of times, the most bleak of time, that there's something beautiful that can come out, or hope that you can look forward to, even then in the bleakest of times. And so that's the symbolism.

Dawsey: That's a great idea. How'd you land on that?

Wilson: Yeah, that's an interesting story: So, one of my earliest memories in Japan was with my mother, when she took me to a cherry blossom festival, which was very popular in Japan. And so we went on a bus, went to the cherry blossom festival, and then somewhere during that trip, we went into a temple. In the temple — right outside the temple, had a little souvenir shop thing. And there was an etching that I liked and I wanted her to get for me, and it was an etching of what I thought was a cherry blossom tree. And so I wanted to, just as a souvenir to remember the day by, and when I got home, I asked her to read the inscription on the etching, and it was, "The plum tree blossoms, even in winter." You can't imagine how disappointed I was because I thought it was a cherry blossom tree. But it was a plum tree instead, but I kept that throughout my entire life. And then I come back to referring to it later in the book.

Dawsey: So that's a beautiful message. Now, like I said, I've written books, too, so I know it's not an easy task. It's a pretty intense process. I've never written a memoir, though. And I'm just wondering: What have you learned about yourself, about the world around you, about your own personal history? What are some of the biggest lessons that are coming out of you writing this book for you?

Wilson: Yeah. The first thing is I used to be a very good writer — at least people said that. My scientific training, I think, has made me write differently. I'm not nearly as literary in my writing style. And when you write non-scientifically, and you want to be more literary, the way you express yourself is so much different than a scientific method; for example, in science, if you want to say that the ocean water is blue, that's what you say: You say, "The water is blue," and in a literary book you might say something like, "There was a reflection of a cloudless sky shimmering on surface of the ocean. And underneath it, you can see slivers of fish swimming," or something like that. I'm just making it up, but you have to infer a lot in.

So there's a lot of language that goes into not just telling you exactly what's going on, but showing you what's going on. And so that's a totally different style of writing, and so that's been a little difficult for me to revert back to a style that I understood 50 years ago, but I have to get back into getting used to that style. And, obviously, a memoir is a little bit difficult because it's easy to think that other people are going to be interested in your story, but nobody's going to be interested in your story as much as you think, right? Because it's about you, and so —

Dawsey: Nobody loves me like you. You can ask my mama.

Wilson: It's hard trying to figure out, OK, what is it that I'm trying to say that's bigger than me?

Dawsey: OK.

Wilson: But to have a message there that's going to resonate with people. And I'm not one to be able to — I don't really like talking about myself and stuff anyway, and so getting beyond that is in itself somewhat difficult.

Dawsey: I'm glad you said it before I did — because most folks who've interacted with you who know that you're a fairly reserved man. You do keep a lot of things close to the chest, which serves you well, as president of Wayne State. But for those of us — particularly inquiring prime journalists like myself [who] want to know a little bit more, sometimes it could be a little tough. So this is a great opportunity.

I want to find out: What kind of stories are we going to find out about you in this memoir? Can you share some of the stories, some of the other lessons, you talked about the title? Some of the other lessons, some of the other stories from your formative years — what kind of insights can you give us?

Wilson: Yea, I'm not going to share a lot, but I will tell you this, OK: I've had a very interesting in childhood that most people would not believe, or would not have had thought. A lot of people, seeing where I am now, assume certain things about my background, and it's a very different background than a lot of people believe, or thought I might've had — and a lot of challenges that I had to overcome, both in terms of growing up. But I talk about other challenges as an adult, and so I'll leave it at that, but there are number of surprises, and now, let me just put it that way.

Dawsey: All right, well, we don't want to put out too many spoilers, so we'll hold our water on that one. That's great. Well, one thing I do understand a little bit about your background is that you were a pretty impressive athlete, as well as a scholar. I don't want to give away too much of what's in the pages, but I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about your athleticism, and what sports did you play growing up and what are your favorites?

Wilson: Yeah, well, I played just about everything: I played baseball. I was on the varsity soccer team when I was just in seventh grade. So I played soccer, I ran track, played basketball, I played football. I was pretty fast. So when you say what was my best, I did have a Maryland state record in the 100-yard dash for a moment.

Dawsey: Oh wow.

Wilson: It was broken the following year, but for a little bit I had it. But probably basketball was the sport that I concentrated the most on at the latter part of my high school, and got some scholarships to play in college on was basketball.

Dawsey: OK. OK. Now, did you take any of those scholarships?

Wilson: I ended up going to — so this is part of the story, too, but I had a mentor in high school who tried to get me onto a more academic track than where I was going. I was really going to go to college just to play basketball, basically. And I had a number of different offers, but she had selected some colleges that she thought I should go to because of academics. And I found one that they recruited me [for] anyway, and it was on our list and it gave me a good financial package, and so I ended up going to a small liberal arts college that she thought I should go to end up going to medical school. And so that's what happened.

Dawsey: Did you ever have a pro sports aspiration?

Wilson: Well every kid has, right? When I was in junior high in high school, I slept with a basketball; I ate dinner with palming a ball in one hand. And we all have aspirations of being on pro, regardless of how unrealistic that may be. I was good, but I wasn't at that level.

Dawsey: Yeah. Well, I had a cousin who wound up playing for Notre Dame and in the NFL, and I figured out pretty early on that as much as I loved football, he was about, I don't know, four inches taller and maybe a hundred pounds heavier and could beat me all day long running the 40-yard dash — so I realized early on that wasn't for me. Did you ever have that moment where it was like, Ooh, I might be better off going into something else?

Wilson: I mean, I was a good all-around athlete, OK, but there wasn't one sport that I was just totally dominating.

Dawsey: Right.

Wilson: So it wasn't an "aha moment," but it was just more, you have aspirations, you think there's an outside chance, but you really know inside that's not going to be your future. But my goal was really not really to play professional; my goal was to get into college. And so it did do that for me.

Dawsey: OK. And before we move on, because I do want to move on and talk a little bit about those professional aspects, what was that record time in the 100-yard dash?

Wilson: 10.3.

Dawsey: 10 point — wow. That's pretty impressive, President Wilson. And you say it got broken the next year?

Wilson: Yeah, it got broken the next year. Yeah.

Dawsey: That's even more impressive. OK, well, let's move on a little bit. Now, when did you decide that you wanted to become a doctor, and then obviously college administration? But let's start with your medical [aspirations].

Wilson: Yeah, so in high school, I got turned on to Sigmund Freud. I read a book, The Passions of the Mind, by Irving Stone, and it's a historical biography about Sigmund Freud. And I really enjoyed it, and so I started reading a lot of psychoanalysis. I read many of Sigmund Freud's works, as well as Carl Jung. And I went to college thinking I was going to be a psychoanalyst. It's a small college, though, and the psychology department was very behavior psychology-oriented, as opposed to what I was interested in, which was psychoanalysis. It was B.F. Skinner, and behavioral psychology was really the thing back then.

And so I realized in the first semester that this wasn't what I was interested in and that I should go to medical school and become a psychoanalyst by first being a psychiatrist. And so I changed my major from psychology to biology, went to medical school thinking I was going to be a psychoanalyst.

And then in medical school — this happens to a lot of people — I got turned on to some other things: I did a research project that involved glaucoma data, and just became interested in that and decided I was going to continue with both my research in glaucoma risk factors and to be a glaucoma specialist.

Dawsey: OK. OK. And can you just give us some of the highlights in terms of that medical career? What are some of the things that you've accomplished that you're most proud of?

Wilson: Yeah, you're really stretching me here.

Dawsey: How about I do a little bit of bragging for you — how about that? You've done some great work with the National Institutes of Health. You've done some great work around health disparities, along racial lines, economic lines … you've done a lot of great work in terms of bringing attention to bear on that. Certainly that was expertise that was very helpful in terms of your advising folks around what was going on here in Detroit and in Michigan around the coronavirus. So I think, personally, those are some great things. And I'm just wondering what are you most proud of? 

Wilson: Yeah. So I think, and I did talk about this in the book also — so, there [were] two major epidemiological studies that I was responsible for that I'm proud of: The first one actually was in Saint Lucia, and it was a study on glaucoma and it was the first population-based study that I showed that African Americans — or, actually, Blacks because these were Caribbean Blacks, for the most part — that Blacks had a much higher prevalence of glaucoma than whites. Now, before then, it was suspected, but never really proven, and that study actually did that.

And then there was one in Cameroon that took me a long time to plan and do, and there are a number of interesting stories around that one. But the Cameroonian one was one in which we looked at causes of visual impairment and also vitamin C deficiency in children — because you can tell a deficiency through the eyes, looking at the eyes. And so it was a two-pronged study, and I'm proud of that one also because it formed the basis for a national approach for Cameroon for the prevention of blindness.

Dawsey: Those are major accomplishments.

Wilson: So I'll tell you one story from that one, which is in my book: OK, so I had to travel back and forth to Cameroon for seven or eight times planning that study. I got there one time, and went to the capital city of Yaoundé. And I went for my appointment with the minister of health, and as soon as I got there, found out that none of the government officials were working; they had left Yaoundé to go to this resort town of Kribi for a retreat. And they didn't tell me; I had my appointment and everything all set.

I traveled halfway around the world and got there and nobody was there, so I had to go and rent a car and go to Kribi and find this guy. All the hotels were taken. So there was a story about that, but Kribi was so remote that you couldn't even change money to local currency — not even in the bank. And so it was quite an experience…but I was able to get through that —

Dawsey: It sounds like quite an experience.

Wilson: And the study happened, but there [were] a lot of great stories that I tell in my book about that one.

Dawsey: Well, I'm looking forward to reading that one in particular. Really quickly, how do you go from doing that kind of intensive medical research to becoming a university administrator, university president? Can you tell us a little bit about that transition?

Wilson: It was not an abrupt transition, right? It's not like I was a faculty member one day, and then a university administrator the next. It was a slow progression over many, many years. And over all those years, for the most part, I still did what most faculty do: I still saw patients, I still operated. I still did research, but I was doing less and less of it and more and more of administration. So it was gradual. My first administrative position that was not just in medicine was when I was a president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and even though that was still health-related because it was medicine, it was nursing, it was pharmacy, and so forth. It was a university presidency. So there were a lot of things, on a more university level, that I had responsibility for, like fundraising and more strategy things and dealing with legislature.

So that was my first taste, I guess, of a broader administrative role. And then when I went to Colorado, it was two universities that [were] being made into one. One was the University of Colorado Health Science Center, and the other one was University of Colorado Denver. And so I literally had two jobs, basically: One as chancellor of the Denver campus, and one as chancellor of the Health Science Center campus. And my job was to put them both together, but being that chancellor of a position that has such a large academic component that was not health sciences was something that laid the groundwork, I guess, for then coming over to Wayne [State], where it was a general academic university.

Dawsey: OK. OK. We're running a little low on time, so I don't want to — I know you're really busy, but I just got a couple of other questions I'm hoping you can answer. There's been a lot of talk, and we've talked a little bit about this on the Today@Wayne podcast with other folks, but there's been a lot of controversy lately around higher ed. about people questioning the value of a college degree — not just a master's or a Ph.D., but even a bachelor's degree these days, which, as a college graduate, I find unfortunate, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are about this controversy, and how do you sell the notion of the value of a college degree to people?

Wilson: Well, I know you know what my thoughts are; I mean, I still think that a college degree is one of the most important things anyone can do — that it has great, great value. And the value is not just in the lifetime earnings, which has been shown over and over again, to be much greater for a college graduate than a non-college graduate, but also some other health-related quality of life things…Your health is better. You're happier in your marriage. You're a better civic citizen. I mean, there [are] so many other measures that a college graduate do much better on than a non-college graduate, so in terms of value, I can't think of anything that's even more of a value proposition than a college degree.

Dawsey: OK. Last thing, talking about college, what are you thinking? I know we don't want to get too much into the pandemic and coronavirus, but I am curious about how do you think universities will change and are changing in a post-pandemic world?

Wilson: Yes, so I'll try to summarize it in one thought, which I think encompasses a lot of different things, but it's sort of a summary thought: I think that colleges and universities are going to become more flexible and innovative in adapting to diverse needs of students because not all students have the same kind of learning needs as the traditional students 20 years ago. More students are going to want to be online, have flexible scheduling — all kinds of things that had to happen during the pandemic that they're going to continue to demand. And so I think colleges are going to become much more flexible and become innovative in adapting to what the students want and not what they've always just done for decades, and in some cases, centuries.

Dawsey: All right. OK, I agree. Well, we've got a couple of minutes left, so I'm going to wrap up, but I do want to give you an opportunity, if there's anything else maybe you want to add — if there's a question I didn't ask that you want to speak to, if you want to elaborate on anything, just want to give you that opportunity really quickly.

Wilson: Yeah, I mean, we didn't get a chance to talk about the pandemic and about vaccines very much, I know, but I'd be remiss if I didn't leave everyone with the message that if you haven't been vaccinated, particularly those in our university community —if you haven't been vaccinated, I do please urge everyone to get vaccinated as a physician and epidemiologist. I still worry about what can happen in the fall if we don't reach a certain level of herd immunity, and I'm just continuing to urge everyone to get vaccinated and don't think that we're totally 100% done with the pandemic. I still think there's a chance that things can turn, and the more people are vaccinated, the better. So that's my plea to everyone.

Dawsey: All right. Well, I think that's a perfect note to end on. I want to say thank you again, President Wilson, for joining us here on the Today@Wayne podcast. It's been great to talk to you — and, of course, you're always welcome to come back whenever it is that you want, so we really appreciate you taking your time.

Wilson: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Dawsey: All right, have a wonderful day.