When you walk through main campus today, you see a Student Center filled with fast food, three residence halls and a plethora of technology adorning every building. Lab after lab works tirelessly on
groundbreaking research, and you see strolling students of every race and gender. But the Wayne State you see today is a collaboration of over 140 years of development, from social revolutions to the advent
of the computer — and three professors have watched and experienced a majority of its most fruitful years from the late 1960s onwards. Professor William Volz, from the School of Business Administration; Professor Peter Roberts, from the College of Education; and Professor Seymour Wolfson, from the College of Engineering, offered their perspectives on WSU throughout the decades, and how the university you experience became what it currently is.
Volz, who was hired officially at WSU in 1978 but has been around campus since childhood, is amazed at the expansion of campus buildings and campus life that has occurred since he first saw WSU.
“The buildings have grown, the buildings around the central campus have improved and it has made a difference in making it a part of Midtown. It’s a real attractive site for young people to gather,” Volz said.
Roberts, who arrived at WSU in November of 1969, agrees with Volz.
“The physical plant has expanded immensely. The Student Center was just started in 1969, but there were no fast food restaurants and that. So that to me has been the really impressive visible change,” he said.
Wolfson, who began working at WSU in 1968, offers a different perspective on the university’s physical state: “We built many new beautiful buildings, and we’ve become more of a residential campus, so we have students living on campus, which we’ve never had before. But during the days of the presidential service of David Adamany, he transformed the university more towards a research institution as opposed to a teaching institution, and that was a big cost.
“The cost was that we wouldn’t have enough money to keep up the buildings, so the buildings have started to deteriorate, and we don’t have enough money to renovate everything. It’s a $500 million backlog of deferred maintenance,” he said.
“So in one sense, the university has grown, but there is a price that we’ve paid for becoming a research institution. And we don’t have enough money to cover everything that needs to be done.”
Indeed, Roberts has also noticed the impact of the administration’s molding of WSU into a research institution, occurring mainly from 1981 to 1997 under the rule of stringent president David Adamany.
“The focus has now been more on research and publication, and I think that’s probably one of the
areas that could be improved upon,” Roberts said. “Because they might hire a person who is a very good researcher, but is not a very good teacher; so, there has to be a balance. I think I’m a good teacher, but not a good researcher. We’re suffering financially, and if we have two people retire, we can only replace one of them.”
The financial impact of WSU’s turn from teaching to research has been great, and the institution must discover the balance Roberts discusses.
In terms of the growth of the students themselves, all of the professors had positive comments about the progression of student personalities.
“I would say that Wayne State is stronger with its ability to attract good students, with MedStart and those kinds of programs,” Volz said. “As a professor, often the key to a successful class is eight or nine really great people. They can lead the discussion, and all of the students in the classroom are just lifted by a tier of superior students.”
“I think that students today are more in tune to world events … you just go online, and all of sudden you see the fire in Brazil or something like that,” Roberts added. “Before, you wouldn’t learn about that … down the road, maybe. I think they’re smarter.”
The composition of the student body itself has also drastically changed.
“Originally, the student body was mainly Polish, Irish and German,” Volz said. “Now, it’s a different mix, representing the change of immigration patterns to America. They want an opportunity they may not have had in Slovakia or India. If there’s a theme here, it’s opportunity.”
This continuous push for opportunity, however, may have had past negative effects.
“I think that we’ve gone through a period because the university was so financially strapped, and was trying to position itself as a university of opportunity for anyone to get a degree, they were letting in students who were not really suitable for university degrees,” Wolfson said. “So we were bringing in people with very low ACT scores. And we were getting their tuition revenue, but it was a disservice to the students because they would take out loans, but then they couldn’t make it so after a year they would drop out. And it’s our fault, because we had no business taking those students in in the first place.
“I blame it partly on the Board of Governors, because they wanted us to take in everybody, and make this the university of opportunity, then tell faculty it’s our responsibility to make sure they graduate. So you would have to put in extra resources, and we don’t have the money. In the past year or two, they finally figured out we have to stop doing that; now, they’ve raised the conditions, so we’re going to start taking in students who are more inclined to finish their degrees,” Wolfson said.
Other negative aspects of the student body today include the ever-present distraction of electronics, ranging from laptops to smartphones.
“It’s basically between a lecture by Professor Volz and a video of a cheetah sitting on a land rover —
the competition is electronic,” Volz said. Both Roberts and Volz expressed concern about online classes, stating the level of socialization and eye-to-eye contact of a classroom is lost on a computer.
“What I worry about with online classes is that in these four years, you’ll change and get a better sense of what you want to do in life. If you just sit at home, and we give you online instruction, you won’t become the you that you will be,” Volz said.
This major progression of technology has affected every aspect of the professors’ lives, from clerical work to teaching. In the early years, programming was converted into punch cards that were keyed in by a staff of 30 workers. Now, a student’s personal computer has more power than entire mainframes had in the ‘60s.
Roberts fondly remembers his first copier, an enormous machine that ran through a hand-powered
crank. Volz recalls how he would handwrite his work, then collaborate with a secretary to have it typed. Now, Volz types his papers himself on his PC. Wolfson believes this increased reliance on technology, though significant and groundbreaking in his department of computer science, has had noted negative effects.
“Partly because of the computers, people tend to be less socially interactive than before. There used to a building where the Welcome Center parking lot is, and that used to be what was called Mackenzie Hall. One of the things that was on the first floor was a cafeteria, and the faculty used to get together over lunch, and have discussions about things, and that just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s just not a place where the faculty gets together anymore; the residence halls are basically designed for students,” Wolfson said.
Despite this current lack of socialization, the university has a nationally renowned past in addressing social issues, beginning with the area of feminism in sports. Roberts, who has been head coach of the swim team for many years, collaborated with the committee of the NCAA swimming championships to allow Dacia Schileru, a star swimmer, to be the first woman to compete against men in the competition in 1973. This enormous leap forward for women’s rights remains one of the most remembered moments in NCAA history, all due to the progressive stance of WSU’s faculty.
Additionally, WSU has been a leader in the labor, anti-war and civil rights movements, always championing for the working class.
“We were very open to protest, open to demonstration, open to communication and sharing information,” Volz said.
WSU became known for attracting African-American women looking to receive degrees when rejected by prejudiced southern colleges. The university’s student body had also gained a reputation for liberal protest.
“When I first came, The South End was kind of a radical paper, and it seemed like if it didn’t have the f-word on the front page five times, it was not a good feature,” Roberts said.
All of the professors, despite WSU’s changes, still see the university as a positive light and a driving force in Detroit. WSU is slowing the decline that many believe will eventually consume Detroit whole. Though there is always room for improvement, WSU is truly striking a balance as the college of opportunity and diversity. From feminism to iPhones, this campus has been the site of social and technological revolution — and it will be the site of many more to come.