Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson and Provost Keith Whitfield
Months after it began, the coronavirus outbreak that swept through Detroit and the rest of the country continues to rage. While there are mixed opinions on how quickly the crisis is actually receding, local leaders have already started to consider how the city begins to bounce back. At Wayne State University, which since March has been holding remote and online classes only (as well as a virtual graduation that was livestreamed), President M. Roy Wilson and Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Keith E. Whitfield are among those carefully charting the city’s recovery and weighing the prospects of students’ physical return to campus in the fall. Although their plans are still taking shape, Wilson and Whitfield agreed to sit down for a Q&A for the Michigan Chronicle to discuss how WSU is faring amid the outbreak, the factors driving any potential decision to return to campus and their concerns that the recent unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in combination with relaxed social distancing practices could usher in another spike in COVID-19 infections.
The coronavirus hit all of Detroit hard. Wayne State is in the heart of this city. Can you give us a brief overview of how the pandemic hit the university?
- Roy Wilson: We have all watched with great concern as the cases in our city have mounted. Unfortunately, our campus is not immune. We have had a number of COVID-19 cases and, tragically, we lost two members of the Wayne State family — Darrin Adams and Antoinette Bell — due to complications from the virus. Both were students in our School of Social Work, and both were nearing graduation. Darrin also worked as a Wayne State custodian. Each left behind many family and friends, and legacies of helping others. Darrin was a volunteer in Wayne State’s AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project, and Antoinette worked full time at the Detroit Health Department as an immunization advocate. They were true Warriors, and we miss them.
Keith Whitfield: More broadly, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the university has undergone momentous transformation. Classes for our more than 27,000 students were moved to remote instruction in the middle of a semester, and our employees had to shift to working remotely from their homes. The changes have been difficult, but the university has adapted with understanding, flexibility, compassion and a great Warrior spirit.
How did the Wayne State community respond to Detroit’s struggle with the outbreak?
Wilson: We are extremely proud of how our students, faculty and staff have stepped up to combat this pandemic. The list of actions people have taken to assist others in our community is truly prodigious. A few examples include:
- Wayne State University contributed initial funding that established the first sites in Detroit and in Michigan to test first responders and health care workers. That initiative then morphed into mobile units that set up testing sites — first throughout Detroit, and then in lower Michigan — that provided testing for anyone. To date, more than 11,000 people have been tested through this ongoing effort.
- The Wayne State University Police Department has joined the efforts of the “Serving Our Seniors” (S.O.S.) program, administered by the Rev. Dr. Yvette Griffin, a community activist and pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Our officers reach out to senior citizens — a particularly vulnerable population right now — in the Woodbridge area by knocking on doors and providing wellness checks to make sure they’re OK. Our officers deliver boxes of nonperishable goods and leave their business cards attached so that the seniors know who to contact if they need assistance.
- Street Medicine Detroit, a School of Medicine student-led organization committed to serving the unreached homeless population of Detroit, has built a series of field hand-washing stations and placed them near soup kitchens and in homeless encampments throughout the city. The stations allow those who live on the streets to clean and sanitize their hands if they don’t have access to a sink or bathroom during the crisis.
- A dozen of our Chinese faculty members gathered a total of 50,000 pieces of various PPE and organized donations for surrounding-area hospitals and police departments. The group later coordinated with other local Chinese organizations to set up monetary donations, which have brought in more than $30,000.
A comprehensive list of Wayne State’s activities in the community can be found at today.wayne.edu/covid-19.
Wayne State didn’t shut down, but in the spring, you did move classes online. Do you foresee a return to in-person classes soon?
Whitfield: Like our students and faculty, we are eager to return to campus life, but we want to be sure we do so carefully and safely. We have remained open throughout the pandemic and will definitely be “open for business” in the fall. There are still many unknowns that make it hard to predict with great certainty, but we expect to be teaching some classes on campus where we can maintain safe social distancing and other healthy behaviors. Where we can’t, we will continue to conduct classes remotely and online. We expect to decide on the proportion of each type of instruction by July 15. The few hundred students who have never left our residence halls will be joined by students who are already signing up to live on campus. Here, too, we will enact new measures of testing and distancing for safety.
Our students and prospective students appear ready to return. Our current enrollment numbers are slightly ahead of last year, which saw the second-largest freshman class in Wayne State’s history. This is a testament to the fact that Wayne State remains an excellent opportunity for students to get a great quality education from a premier research university.
And what are the considerations guiding your decision?
Wilson: Our decisions begin and end with safety first. This remains our top priority, and we will continue to be informed by sensible safety precautions and direction from state and health authorities.
Teaching, learning and research will shift back to former operations, where prudent and possible, though they will incorporate new learning approaches where applicable. We may need to change the way we operate in some cases, but we will not compromise the quality of our education and research.
Provost Whitfield, what is your message to incoming, current and potential students about how to approach the coming fall semester?
Whitfield: In the fall, we will offer a mix of in-person, remote and online classes. What proportion of which will be determined by July 15. By then, we should have more information about the status of the virus and a determination of which classes would best be held on campus versus remotely. In the end, our decision will be based on science and a full commitment to protecting the health and safety of our campus community. We’re nimble enough as an institution to adapt to any scenario quickly and safely.
Despite the understandable trepidation people may feel about returning to campus, or even continuing earning college education, now is not the time to disrupt your progress toward earning a degree. In fact, at a time when travel is curtailed and unemployment is high, now is a great time to work toward a degree and position yourself for future opportunities. Whether you are graduating high school, already enrolled in an undergraduate program, or in the workforce and considering bolstering your credentials with a graduate degree, now is the time and Wayne State is the place. We will continue to develop innovative programs and opportunities to make the educational experience at Wayne State special.
As an urban campus, Wayne State has had a long and special relationship to the city. How do you think the coronavirus crisis has altered that relationship? Do you think the changes will last?
Wilson: As we noted earlier, Wayne State has really stepped up to help the community during this crisis. We think people recognize and appreciate that, but we’re not doing it to get credit. Detroit and Wayne State are inextricably linked. As we’ve seen over the years, the city and the university need each other to be at their very best. When Detroit is thriving, that helps Wayne State, and when Wayne State is thriving, it can do more to help the city and its citizens. By weathering this pandemic together, it only strengthens that relationship.
President Wilson, you’ve been a national voice in the discussion about racial disparities underlying the infection and death rates from COVID-19. What are your thoughts about what more the community, city and state should be doing to erase these disparities?
Wilson: As with the current protests over racism and the disparate impact of violence in the black community, there needs to be more focus on the fact that cities like Detroit have been ravaged disproportionately by the coronavirus pandemic. Communication and data are key to delivering that message.
We need a culturally appropriate communication strategy to urge more African Americans to get tested and to get treated if symptomatic. Of course, barriers to testing and treatment must be removed for that to happen. Wayne State is helping to address costs and access to tests through our free mobile and drive-through testing.
Next, race data must be more thoroughly tracked, and this has to happen now. Too few states and counties break down COVID-19 cases and outcomes by race. Currently, most are reporting only on the basis of geography, gender and age. Given the magnitude of the COVID-19 death disparities by race, there is no excuse for excluding this information.
Health disparities are a focus of research at Wayne State, and I’m hopeful that our physicians and scientists will be able to help address this issue.
Issues of race and the virus were brought into even sharper relief last week as thousands of protesters nationwide risked infection to take to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, the black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. What did you think about the protests themselves and, just as critically, the impact they will have on efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the black community?
Wilson: Personally, last week was very tough for me. The George Floyd killing left me angry and a little depressed. It’s tragic on so many different levels. Unfortunately, racism and the disparate impact of violence in the black community remain national issues, but we should remember that each of these incidents involves real people. George Floyd had family and friends who mourn his death, and dreams that will never be fulfilled. My heart aches for this loss, and my sympathies go out to his loved ones. No person in America — regardless of their race, creed or religion — should ever fear for their life simply because of who they are or how they look.
It’s also a tragic situation because of the violence that has followed. A large portion of people have been responding in the appropriate way, and they should respond, but some of the looting and violence is tragic. Businesses that were beginning to pick up and recover are being demolished. That’s only going to exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis from an economic standpoint, although the real tragedy will be a potential spike in the infection and death rates.
The protests themselves are legitimate, justified and necessary. It’s imperative that people speak out and stand against racism and police brutality. But I’m worried about any situation where there are large crowds and people not taking all the necessary measures to prevent infection. And it’s not just the protests. I’m reminded of the Lake of Ozarks party on Memorial Day. A person who attended that party did test positive, and he probably infected many people. I was cycling recently and saw a large crowd at a mosque. The women were covered, but none of the men were. Then, on Memorial Park in Royal Oak, I was cycling around and saw people playing basketball, guarding each other, all up on each other. People were out in force disobeying the social distancing rules, and that makes me worry that people aren’t taking the virus seriously anymore.
That’s my biggest concern over the protests. When you look at some of the crowds gathering in protest of what happened to George Floyd, many people aren’t wearing masks. And I fear that after all our community has done to fight this virus and all the loss we’ve suffered, we are going to go backwards.
We cannot afford to relax. Just as we are active and aware about the social issues that affect the black community, we have to remain vigilant in our effort to defeat a virus that is also unfairly taking black lives. Whether the threat is from a viral illness or a societal disease, our lives matter, and we must safeguard them at all costs.
Whitfield: What happened to George Floyd was hard on me, partly because it was not a new issue, so I was left wondering, Will we ever get to a point where we judge each other based on the content of their character rather than the color of one’s skin? As a young man, I was inspired by the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and believed it would happen someday.
The George Floyd incident reminded me of the conversation I had with my son nearly 20 years ago about how you interact with the police as a black man. My son has grown into an outstanding young man but is now having the same conversation with his young sons. But I am trying to be hopeful that this will be an inflection point: that we will move toward real change. That my grandsons won’t have to have the same conversation with their sons.
Yesterday, I looked out my window and saw a march down Woodward Avenue. I was encouraged to see that it seemed like at least half the people were trying to space themselves apart. It was a great example of demonstrating against a great injustice and fighting the pandemic. We clearly are faced with two issues of great importance in the struggle to preserve life and human rights.