The Higher Learning Commission, a nonprofit that gives Wayne State its accreditation, received several anonymous complaints stating a member of the Board of Governors was violating HLC’s Core Criterion. 

This criterion forbids board members from interfering in “day-to-day management of the institution,” according to their website.

Those interviewed for the report had complaints about one particular board member — revealed in complaints attached in the report to be Sandra Hughes O’Brien. She overstepped her authority on at least four occasions, the report said. 

The HLC recommended a new course of action for the BOG. The first order of business — decide upon a code of conduct. Currently, the BOG doesn’t have one. 

The HLC made this recommendation in a Sept. 6 report, publicized by the Detroit Free Press. This was the conclusion at the end of the report —  which was a detailed internal investigation of the BOG.

In compliance with the HLC, Wayne State’s General Council Louis Lessem permitted an attorney from a law firm in Des Moines, Iowa to conduct the investigation. Lessem selected the attorney because the board decided it could not reasonably “investigate itself,” and the firm had no prior connection to the university. 

Lessem and the president’s office declined to comment.

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President Wilson and board chair Trent at the BOG meeting March 20.

The attorney interviewed more than 20 people, including the eight board members and President Wilson. The report did not mention the individuals by name. 

Emily S. Pontius, the attorney who conducted the report declined comment.

The board rejected a proposed code of conduct at September’s board meeting. O’Brien, Anil Kumar, Dana Thompson and Michael Busuito were the members who rejected the proposal.

BOG chair Kim Trent says she’ll put forward another one.

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Trent and Wilson at the BOG meeting March 20

“I plan to reintroduce a code of conduct, given the fact that HLC has now advised us to. You know, heed the advice of the investigator,” Trent said. “It’s difficult to hold a colleague accountable, or at least to point out that they have done something wrong if there’s no framework.”

Trent noted that students “don’t need to worry” about the university losing its accreditation. 

Trent said she was familiar with some of the allegations before the report came out. 

“The fact that these people took it upon themselves to write a letter to HLC kind of set in motion the opportunity to see if things that had been rumored were true or not,” Trent said. “And according to the investigators, some of them were true.”

O’Brien called the report’s media publicization a “political hit piece,” which she says may have been orchestrated by former Health Affairs Vice President David Hefner. The board elected to have him fired earlier this year. 

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O'Brien at a BOG meeting on March 20.

“The ugly underbelly of this story is that it began after the board, by majority vote, directed Wilson to terminate David Hefner, the consultant Wilson hired whom we paid millions of dollars to and received no deliverables from,” writes O’Brien in an emailed statement to The South End.

“I was board chair at the time and called for the vote. In retaliation, Hefner filed these complaints and delivered them to the press,” she said.

Hefner told The Detroit News he had no comment pertaining to O’Brien’s accusation.

The HLC also recommends the BOG should “participate in ongoing training with the University’s Accreditation Criteria and its responsibilities,” and that O’Brien should “participate in training with the Association of Governing Boards or a comparable resource.”

Both Trent and O’Brien say they don’t find this necessary. 

“(O’Brien) is not a neophyte, I think she has had sufficient training,” Trent said. “And we (the board) actually attend the workshops, we attend the plenary sessions, we have had two retreats this year with professionals from AGB.”

The Report


Immigration Case

The report says that in 2018, O’Brien took “particular interest” in an employee with “unique immigration status.” The report says O’Brien was dissatisfied with the Office of International Students and Scholars’ (OISS) response time. She recommended an outside attorney handle the case (approved by WSU officials). 

The attorney required a signature from an OISS employee for the visa renewal. The OISS employee wanted time to review the document before signing. 

O’Brien allegedly called OISS, demanding that the papers be signed immediately. She also demanded that the OISS director be terminated, the report says. 

“If students or faculty call for help, after the administration has failed to do so, that's not running the university, that's helping protect both vulnerable students and faculty,” said O’Brien in an email. 

O’Brien denies ever asking for an employee’s termination. The report alleges she did this several times. 

Latino/a and Latin American Studies

The report says that in 2016, O’Brien attempted to reorganize leadership at the Center of Latino/a and Latin American Studies without involving all members of the board or President Wilson. She “worked directly with an employee three levels subordinate to the President of the University in an attempt to reorganize the Center for Latino/a Studies and change its leadership.”


Student Athletes’ Financial Aid

In 2018, WSU officials launched an internal audit on student athletes’ financial aid information. The information was to be provided to the NCAA, which the report notes has stringent rules about financial aid.

O’Brien approached the Auditor after a meeting. She asked to review all reports before the auditor sent them out. She reportedly said, “I don’t want anything going to the NCAA without my review and without me conducting interviews.” The report found that this conduct was out of her scope. However, the report says this did not prevent the auditor from conducting a fair investigation. 

Dealings with Health Affairs Ex-VP David Hefner

Earlier this year, the board advised President Wilson to fire the Vice President of Health Affairs, effective immediately. Wilson wanted additional time to find a temporary replacement. O’Brien allegedly told Wilson she would go directly to the School of Medicine and the media to “set the record straight” if he did not comply within 24 hours. 

The report alleges she instructed Chief Anthony Holt to arrest Hefner if he entered campus. O’Brien denies she asked Holt to do this. 

The report says the board was “likely” within its authority to advise the President’s termination of Hefner. However, it says the board cannot delegate the terms in which a President terminates an employee. 

Jack Thomas is a correspondent for The South End. He can be reached at

Cover photo by Jonathan Deschaine