Like so many institutions of higher learning across the nation, Detroit’s Wayne State University is experiencing its own sea change in financial backing. The school’s finance base has shifted from two-thirds state funding to two-thirds tuition support.
If the Michigan Legislature approves the current governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, state appropriations for Wayne State would be at their lowest level since 1989. Amid the fiscal turbulence, former auto industry executive Allan Gilmour was coaxed from retirement last summer to run the school as interim president.
Gilmour took on the challenges with gusto and quickly began wowing the school’s various constituent groups. By winter, the 76-year-old former Ford Motor Company vice chairman had so impressed the Wayne State community that the school’s Board of Governors dropped its search for a permanent president and unanimously selected Gilmour for the post, which Gilmour agreed to take on for three years.
“I thought for a pinch hitter it would be interesting and important,” says Gilmour about taking what he thought would only be a temporary position.
In 2010, Gilmour inherited a well-regarded but demoralized school suffering through a litany of problems.
It had severed ties with Gilmour’s predecessor, who had served as president for just over a year. The provost had been on the job barely a month. There were three dean vacancies, and the school’s veteran head of business operations and finance was preparing to retire. To top it off, the university was battling its perennially low retention and graduation rates.
Gilmour says he rarely has a dull moment running the 32,000-student university. Despite having served in a variety of management and finance capacities over nearly four decades at Ford, he says the company was still a single-product organization — automobiles. “Now, every day I turn a different page,” he says. “It’s so different from what I did in the past.”
Gilmour says he’s already making progress on his agenda, including overhauling Wayne State’s administrative processes, which he characterizes as “old and creaky.”
He says the new provost “is in full tilt” now, a new vice president for finance is on board and progress is being made in tackling the school’s retention and graduation issues. He’s soon to start a new major capital campaign aimed at the school’s 150th anniversary in 2018.
“His business background, Interpersonal skills and his ability to manage people” make Gilmour “perfect” for Wayne, says Chacona Winters Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, a small, independent foundation that raises funds to help public school children in Detroit.
“He’s a straight shooter, intelligent and is funny. He’s a leader only looking to add value to the institution, not his next job.”
Gilmour, a Vermont native with an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Michigan, is a good fit, say those who know him and have worked with him. He has a good sense of humor, they say. He also has a sense of Wayne State and what it means to Detroit and the greater Southeastern Michigan region.
The internal overhaul and the external fundraising are all essential, says Gilmour. Gloomy financial picture aside, he says he likes his new assignment “better than I thought I would. I’d forgotten the enthusiasm and creativity. I found a lot more talent than I expected.”