COMMENTARY: Wayne State University’s Commitment to Black Excellence Extends Beyond Black History Month

As we take time this month to celebrate and reflect on the tremendous contributions that African American and other Black diasporic communities have made to the United States and the world, I find myself fortunate to have the opportunity to both reflect on the past and look ahead to the opportunities offered by this important celebration.

 Certainly, it is no secret to many of us that Wayne State University — where I have the honor of serving as president — enjoys a strong and enduring legacy of Black history trailblazers. Even a short list of noted Warriors reads like a Who’s Who of historic change agents, be it Congressman John Conyers, chemist Bettye Washington Greene, poet Robert Hayden, jurist Damon Keith, firebrand attorneys Kenneth Cockrell and Edward Littlejohn or former Detroit City Council president Erma Henderson.

 As inspiring as it is to look back on the remarkable accomplishments of these and others monumental Black leaders from WSU, the legacies of these great women and men demand that we focus just as intently on the future. To honor and celebrate Black History Month means that, rather than just noting how far we’ve come, we never lose sight of how much farther we have to go — and how committed we must remain to get there.

At Wayne State, that commitment to advancing inclusion is always a priority. It drives our vision. It helps shape our path forward. And it is yielding tangible results.

Consider, for instance, that Wayne State University in 2023 was named the state’s top Carnegie R1 research university for the social mobility of its students, many of them identify as Black or African American. This is no coincidence. In a world where economically under-resourced students who experience many social challenges are less likely than others to finish college, Wayne State has worked diligently to remove impediments to access and success in higher education. We have been pioneers in developing programs such as the Wayne State Guarantee that provides financial assistance for eligible students so they attend tuition-free; the Heart of Detroit tuition pledge that offers free tuition for students of Detroit high schools or Detroit residents earning a high school diploma; and the Warrior Way Back program that offers debt forgiveness to returning students with an outstanding balance of $4,000 or less so that they can continue to pursue their education. The results so far? This year, among our incoming undergraduate class, more than 20 percent identified as Black or African American and 54% attend Wayne State without paying tuition or academic fees.

Moreover, students are graduating and earning their degrees at record rates. For instance, our six-year graduation rate for Black and African American students has more than tripled over the last decade. Among the top-tier 146 universities of the 4000+ nationwide (classified as Carnegie R1, Very High Research Activity Doctoral Universities), Wayne State now ranks 14th in the percentage of students identifying as Black or African American who earn degrees. This achievement is due in no small part to programs such as Warrior 360, a graduation-focused framework that fully engages students through professional success coaching, peer partners and high-touch, care-driven performance monitoring and intervention. To build upon this success, we recently launched our College to Career initiative, a sweeping effort designed to enhance and expand opportunities for students to deepen learning through career-ready application in and beyond the classroom through experiences such as industry internships, community service-learning projects, entrepreneurial teaming and professional mentoring. We believe College to Career and other efforts will help us add to the rich legacy of African American and Black alumni who’ve made such a difference in our lives and our history.

As part of our commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive campus community, we also kicked off a cluster hiring program, supported in part by a $6 million Mellon Foundation grant, to attract and engage new faculty members in disciplines across the university whose research is centered on the Black experience. Thus far, we’ve hired 18 new faculty and pathway to faculty members in the Colleges of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the College of Education, the School of Social Work, the College of Fine and Performing Arts, the College of Engineering, and the School of Medicine, and continue to conduct national searches for other diverse hires to further bolster our academic community. With the Mellon grant support, Wayne State also will serve as home to a new Detroit Center for Black Studies, a multidisciplinary hub that promises to connect Black Studies faculty across the university with our surrounding communities, as well as with peers in institutions throughout Michigan.

Our commitment goes well beyond campus, too. We invest heavily in Detroit and its people, delivering health services, broadening business opportunities and providing social support for some of the most vulnerable in our communities. For instance, we are attacking the health disparities that too often affect Black families and hamper the quality of life of countless Detroiters. Our Taylor Street Clinic and Wayne Health Center at 400 Mack Ave. provide critical primary care to under resourced communities where access to health care is often limited. Meanwhile, our Wayne Health Mobile Units deliver health care screenings that can save lives to communities that often lack consistent access to medical care. Programs such as the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development apply modern research to facilitate the development and improve the welfare of children in neighborhoods throughout Detroit. WSU professor Hayley Thompson has brought together Wayne State, the Karmanos Cancer Institute and the Faith Based Genetic Research Institute in a partnership that supports a network of metro Detroit churches that collaborate to boost the health and well-being of the area’s residents, and participation in clinical trials to better understand the basis of disparities in health outcomes in underserved communities. These are but a few examples.

As with health disparities, we’re also committed to taking on the racial wealth gap. One significant case in point: TechTown Detroit, Wayne State’s business support and entrepreneurial hub, last year worked with more than 1,000 entrepreneurs — 63 percent of them who identify as Black or African American — to start 26 new businesses. Those efforts raised more than $23.3 million in startup and growth capital. This work has made a real-world difference, too. For example, TechTown’s resources have gone to support visionaries like Darren Riley, co-founder and CEO of JustAir, a blossoming startup that uses innovative technologies to help communities identify and mitigate sources that pollute breathing environments. In a Detroit where asthma sickens people at rates higher than anywhere else in Michigan, Riley’s entrepreneurship is critical.

Despite our most well-intentioned efforts and our most successful outcomes, however, we recognize that the road to opportunity for all still stretches far ahead. Whatever our advancements, too much of life in our city, our region and our nation remains marred by disparity and discrimination. It is important that we take time this February — and all year ‘round — to acknowledge the bravery, perseverance, genius and determination of the African American men and women who fundamentally shaped our history. And it is just as critical that we use the lessons learned to lift those who will lead us and forge an even brighter future. As president of Wayne State University, I am committed to do just that.

Kimberly Andrews Espy, Ph.D., is the current president of Wayne State University

About Post Author

From the Web

Skip to content