What’s Wayne State hiding? Muckraker files FOIA request for emails

Site of the future Mike Ilitch School of Business next to the new Red Wings arena.
Site of the future Mike Ilitch School of Business next to the new Red Wings arena. Photo by Steve Neavling.

The “confidential” agreement between Wayne State University under President M. Roy Wilson and billionaire Mike Ilitch to build a new business school has raised serious questions about the use of declining school funds and the potential risk to students whose tuition continues to increase.

WSU President Roy Wilson
WSU President Roy Wilson

Motor City Muckraker recently revealed details of the agreement, which includes conditions that could make taxpayers and students responsible for some or all of the Ilitch family’s $35 million donation to build the Mike Ilitch School of Business. The university is chipping in an additional $24 million for construction. The university provided the agreement after Motor City Muckraker filed a FOIA request for the documents.

What remains unclear is how the secretive deal took shape, and whether university officials applied due diligence to protect taxpayers, and why the university would sign an agreement with so many strings attached.

Michael Wright, vice president for Finance and Business Operations, treasurer and chief financial officer
Michael Wright, vice president of Marketing and Communication and chief of staff

On TuesdayMotor City Muckraker filed a Freedom of Information Act request for e-mails involving the naming and construction of the business school that were sent to and from university accounts. We requested specifically the university e-mails of President M. Roy Wilson, Chacona W. Johnson (former vice president of Development and Alumni Affairs), William Decatur (vice president for Finance and Business Operations), Susan E. Burns (vice president of Development, Alumni Affairs and president of the WSU Foundation), Louis Lessem (vice president and general counsel), Julie Miller (vice president and secretary of the Board of Governors) and Michael Wright (vice president of Marketing and Communication and chief of staff). Our request includes e-mails between those top university officials and the Ilitch family and foundation.

William Decatur
William Decatur, vice president for Finance and Business Operations

Wayne State is a public university and subject to open records laws.

The FOIA request for the emails of these top administrators is to clearly determine in the public interest what role (if any) each of them played in crafting the deal on behalf of the university.

While President Wilson in numerous interviews championed the deal, the FOIA request for the emails is to provide complete transparency for an agreement that raises disturbing questions about the obligations the public university has under the agreement.

Susan E. Burns,
Susan E. Burns, vice president of Development, Alumni Affairs and president of the WSU Foundation

Besides the financial penalty – a reduction of the $5 million endowment – to the university if the construction of the business school is late as stipulated in the deal, similar gift agreements have spurred controversy and debate at other universities when donors want to influence or control curriculum with their donations. This has often triggered bitter clashes between university administrators and faculty over academic integrity and freedom and preserving the legacy of the institutions.

Louis Lessem, vice president and general counsel
Louis Lessem, vice president and general counsel

A confidentiality clause in the agreement, a legal document that binds Wayne State University to the terms of the deal, even prohibits Wayne State officials from disclosing details to the public, and that includes the university’s “directors, officers, staff or employees who do not have a reason to know the information.”

Our investigation into Wayne State University’s leadership is in line with Motor City Muckraker’s deep commitment to watchdog journalism.

Julie Miller,
Julie Miller, vice president and secretary of the Board of Governors

Our investigation of Wayne State is no different than other public bodies and departments we held accountable in the past. For example, Motor City Muckraker led a lengthy and vigorous investigation into the Detroit Fire Department that precisely focused on whether taxpayers were getting proper services.

The result of that investigation was a complete revamp of the fire department. And in the process, when the city of Detroit refused to disclose broken hydrant records, Motor City Muckraker successfully sued, leading to a story that showed serious municipal neglect, including lack of leadership and accountability and poor management.

Motor City Muckraker is an independent, ad-free watchdog that relies on donations. Your contribution will help us continue serving as a watchdog who answers to no one but the public.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.