Tom Watkins: A Leader Across the Public and Private Divide Discusses Education

Feb 15, 2017 by

An Interview with Tom Watkins: A Leader Across the Public and Private Divide Discusses Education

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Tom Watkins is a former business leader, state superintendent of Michigan schools who has held leadership positions in higher education, non-profits and the private sector who is a known innovator willing to speak truth to power. Tom Watkins has been referred to as the “canary in the coal mine” for education, mental health and relations with China for his ability to “see around the corner” and lead change that produces to progress. We recently caught up with Tom to get his take on K-12 and higher education in America during these turbulent times.

1.Tom, you are not one to say, “I told you so,” but didn’t you foreshadow the pending health care and pension legacy cost issue that is sinking schools, colleges and universities across the country.

Yes, I wrote a report:Structural Funding Issues Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st century

( in 2004 that foreshadows many of these problems playing out across the country today. If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our leaders have failed to lead and avoided the hard choices which has just exacerbated the problem. Recently, Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder established a task force to take on this long neglected mounting problem and deserves accolades for doing so.

2.Higher Education in America is viewed as the “envy of the world.” What say you?

American education is exceptional on a number of planes and we have much to be proud of. We have schools and universities that are islands of excellence surrounded by a sea of despair. Universities must do a better job ensuring that students get their money’s worth (along with their families and American taxpayers), for the investment made. Not graduating—or graduating with a degree with little prospect of meaningful employment—is a travesty.

Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of, “American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know,” is the Paul Revere of the higher education crisis. She challenges university administrators to know their student body through various tools of technology such as data mining, data analytics and the study of students’ digital footprints, then intervene to keep them on track.

Blumenstyk points out that the data is there to determine if, “…their attendance [has] slipped? Have they stopped logging in to read course packets or file assignments? Did they just drop the very class they needed for their major?”

“Colleges face no shortage of challenges these days: A skeptical public, fragile business models, stratification of students by income and uncertainty of government financial support, to name just a few. Data solutions can’t and won’t save higher education from all of that, but they could certainly put colleges on the right path,” Blumenstyk concludes.

We are great– we need to be much better. Staying even is falling behind in this fast paced world.

  1. Is Higher education necessary for everyone today?

As a first generation college grad, I am personally aware of how knowledge can change one’s life. Mine was enriched on multiple levels. The knowledge I gained along the way from professors, instructors and my fellow students was earned at Wayne State, Michigan State and Oakland Universities as well as Madonna and Henry Ford Community Colleges.  Higher education holds the unique niche as a place that helps prepare students for the diverse global economy we live in today. Universities need to expand their reach in partnership with industry, government, the expanding healthcare market and global partners to better prepare our youth for their future, not our past.

Having said that, we need to also be expanding our trade schools and apprenticeship programs to meet the needs of industry going forward.

  1. You were ahead of the curve promoting e-and blended learning before most and wrote a research paper that pushed your state of Michigan to be the first state to mandate each high school student have exposure to this new way of learning. Your report got universal raves and international attention. Is the report still available for our readers to review and what are your thoughts on eLearning going forward?

Yes, you can find the 2005 report:

The New Educational (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan here: michigan/

Many universities have gone on building sprees at a time when technology, especially e- and blended learning with its anywhere, anytime, anyplace, any pace learning, may make the need for dorms, huge lecture halls and other institutional edifices obsolete.

We need to consider the following question: Is higher education organized for our past or our future? How and will technology be used to advance learning and knowledge?

  1. You were an early proponent of teaching Chinese history, culture and language in Michigan schools and are credited with convincing the County Executive in your second largest county, Oakland County for offering Chinese in all its schools. Why?

Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet and China is the fastest growing large economy in the world and home to 1/5th of all humanity. The relationship between the US and China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today and all major world issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, DC. Yet, far too many of our citizens, are far too ignorant about all things Asia and especially China. I am proud of the work I have done to build cultural, economic and educational ties between our two nations. I am proud to advise Governor Snyder and the Chinese/Michigan Innovation Center as well as the Detroit Chinese Business Association. If interested in by broader thoughts on all thing China visit the US/China Focus website: Tom Watkins- CHINA US Focus

  1. There is much talk of finding none traditional academic leaders to be superintendent of schools and university presidents. What is your thoughts on the subject?

I successfully served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001-05. I think “leaders” come in all shapes, colors, sizes and backgrounds.  Having been successful in both K-12 and higher education as I leader I also understand we need to embrace the traditions of academia while acknowledging the stark realities of change that will continue to slam us at warp speed. I have given considerable thought to these challenges and elucidate them in some detail in two articles: “Higher Education Calamity” and “Déjà vu: Reflections on Higher Education”. Higher Education Calamity

Déjà vu: Reflections on Higher Education

While business principles have merit and value, the entire education and university community – board, president, faculty, support staff, students and alumni – are needed to hoist sail to the future while avoiding various factions dropping anchors into the past. In essence, I consider myself a hybrid of both the values of academia married with the tenacity and drive of a CEO.

My experience as Special Assistant to Dr. David Adamany, former President of Wayne State University (WSU) in the mid-90’s came after I had led the State of Michigan Department of Mental Health. My experience at WSU taught me how to balance faculty engagement with the achievement of the president’s bold initiatives.

My success as a transformational leader transitioning the former Wayne County Mental Health Agency, part of Wayne County government, into a successful independent governmental authority, is testament to my leadership skills. By building an exceptional team, we completely revitalized a $700 million organization into a successful enterprise delivering value to the vulnerable people we serve along with the taxpayers. We have eliminated our legacy debt, generated tens of millions of dollars in new revenue and turned the organization from “worst to first” in just over three years as our most recent Annual Report demonstrates: Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority Fiscal Year 2015-16 Annual Report

This is what leadership is all about– Engagemnt, collaborations and results.

  1. There is lots of talk about diversity in our nations and on College campus today. What are your thoughts? Diversity is our strength. While I choose to live in Michigan, I view myself as a citizen of the world and am constantly seeking ways to incorporate diversity, in all its kaleidoscope of wonder and color, in all that I do. Of the various awards and recognitions I have received in my career, I take pride in being recognized as someone who acts on my belief that diversity is a strength. People come in many sizes, shapes, colors, religions, cultures, values, beliefs, customs and ways of viewing the world. There are great differences and many similarities in our world. Differences bring joy to some while frightening others. Cultural diversity is defined as differences in race, ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and gender as represented within a community or workplace.

Depending on your upbringing and what you are taught, you can see these differences as strengths or weaknesses – something to embrace or shun.

We are blessed in this country because it IS so diverse. With diversity comes many perspectives and ideas that add strength in our ability to innovate, strategize, communicate and deliver new ideas while striving to build “a more perfect union”.

See: “Many Types of Birds In A Big World” for additional thoughts on this important topic:

  1. You are seen as one of the pioneers in the Charter School movement, helping to start the first charter school in both Michigan and Florida and helped create several other charters in your career. Your thoughts on Charter Schools today?

When it comes to Charters, like traditional schools– we have the “good, bad and ugly. We have to move beyond the ideology that surrounds the school debate and get serious about reform that produces results.   At the end of the day, rhetoric from our nations or state capitols does not educate our children. The only adjective that should matter before the word “school” is QUALITY!  See, “So You Want To Start A Charter School?” — an Ed Week article I wrote in 1995– it foreshadows much of what is playing out in this space today:

By Tom Watkins Education Week

  1. You are not afraid to push the envelope and suggest bold ways to rethink education. You wrote a stimulating essay entitled: “Taking the Charter School to College” for The Center for Michigan ( where you challenged educators to innovate to educate rather than leading the battle to contain the change.” You propose opening up the teacher training process by letting others with a “better mouse trap” to enter the business of preparing educators. Now, that will shake up folks in the status quo. Tell us your thinking on this idea?

Perhaps it was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s that caused me to constantly question the status quo. Today, I hear complaints about the quality of teacher preparation programs. These complaints come from teachers themselves as well as principals and superintendents. There has been much discussion of late of modifying tenure in order to rid schools of “ineffective teachers.” Isn’t this like standing downriver and pulling drowning victims out of the river? Would it not be wise to go up stream and see what’s throwing ineffective teachers in the system to begin with?

I ask, ” What if our colleges of education did not have the exclusive franchise on preparing future teachers?” “What if we opened up the teacher preparation business to educational entrepreneurs who could demonstrate through scientific research that their methods actually produced more effective teachers?”

As you can expect, the universities and colleges of educations are not jumping on this idea. Yet, competition and a push to change the status quo can help all improve.

The goal is to stimulate thinking and discuss ways we can improve.

In some ways, the response from the university community has been humorous, predictable and sad. People naturally attempt to protect their turf. Yet our institutions of higher learning are supposed to be the fountains of knowledge and new ideas, not protectionism.

We need to ask what is working and attempt to make it better. Then ask what is not working and create something new. This is what makes America strong and great. We need to continuously ask: “What if the impossible isn’t?”

10) You stated above, “Rhetoric from our state or nation’s capitol has never educated a single child. What is behind this statement?

There is often lots of hot air and many press releases that emanate from the political world. Yet, political pronouncements have never educated a single child. Children are educated not by rhetoric, but by teachers who know their subject matter, are well financed and supported  and are passionate about teaching and learning.

It is our jobs as educational leaders to clear out the under-brush of any debris that gets in the way of teaching and learning.

Everything we do should be measured against this statement: “Show me how this helps a teacher teach and a child to learn”.

This does not mean that we don’t challenge the status quo. The status quo is the enemy of our kids, schools and country.

11.Finally, tell us about the progress of Education in Detroit– are you optimistic?

Yes I am. What happens in the city of Detroit when it comes to educating our children to world class standards impacts us all.

While clearly there are islands of excellence in the Detroit school system, they are many surrounded by a sea of despair. What has happened to the children in Detroit is like watching educational genocide play out before our very eyes. It has been wrong for far too long.

A child without a solid education today is an adult without a future tomorrow.

While much of the focus in Michigan has been on the “brain drain” — the young people who leave the state after obtaining their college degrees — we ought to be petrified about those without a quality education who are left behind.

We cannot rebuild the City of Detroit, the region or the state on a crumbling educational foundation. Our collective economic futures and the quality of education we deliver to ALL of our children are inextricably linked.

There is a newly elected Detroit Public School in charge and a dynamic Mayor who is committed to the city and creating a family friendly environment that begins with quality education. Never before in my professional life am I more optimistic and hopeful that the quality of education for the children of Detroit will steadily improve than I am today.

12.Tom, thanks for your time, thoughts and leadership. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Yes. Education is too important to our collective future to simply leave to the “educators.” We all need to pull together to assure our children — from the cradle to the grave get the education they need and deserve.

13) Finally, if people want to connect with you– what is the best way?

Folks can follow me on twitter @tdwatkins88 or email me at:

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