Tom Watkins: New Vistas, New Horizons

Jun 6, 2017 by

An Interview with Tom Watkins: New Vistas, New Horizons

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Tom, you have one of the most eclectic, diverse careers of leaders I have known. You have served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools during the Bush, “No Child Left Behind” era and pushed for real change (that produced progress for kids) while doing great things to lift up public education, teachers and our children. You have worked in higher education/academia, serving as the special assistant to the President of a major research university while holding academic appointments in several colleges. Wrapping in other experiences you have held leadership positions in business, serving as a China consultant, working at a CPA firm, as a management consultant and as the president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida.   You are a prolific author, publishing articles in diverse publications on an array of topic–around the nation and world. You are viewed as a “China expert” and have written many articles on building relationships with China for the prestigious: CHINA US Focus  You have led one of the largest state departments as a governor appointee overseeing the Michigan Department of Mental Health.

Over the past 4 years you have led the transition of the former Wayne County Mental Health Agency into an independent government “Authority” and you are stepping down, effective August 31, 2017 to explore new opportunities.

So, with this rich and diverse background and experience — what’s next?

Good question. I believe I still have much to offer and am seeking a challenging leadership role where I can add value and help make a difference.  I have enjoyed the time and opportunity given me by our community Board of Directors to help build and lead an exceptional team as we transitioned from the fledgling Wayne County Mental Health Agency into a more vibrant Mental Health Authority. In 2013, I was hired to help unplug the old Wayne County Mental Health Agency, converting it to a separate authority. Imagine, if you will, an old telephone switchboard that has to unplug its human resources, legal, financial, community programs, and governance – moving from one old system and connecting to a new one – all without losing a single call. Yet, in our business the dropped calls would amount to 80,000 vulnerable citizens in Detroit and Wayne County – people with serious mental illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance user disorders.  By any measure, today we are a significantly better and more functional organization.

In these intervening years, DWCMHA has paid off tens of millions of dollars in legacy debt, generated tens of millions of dollars in new revenue and increased direct care staff wages by over $2 an hour. The improvements to both operations and service are remarkable and universally acknowledged in our Annual Report ( with its many accomplishments and acknowledgments by such luminaries as Governor Rick Snyder and Lt. Governor Brian Calley, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon, the honorable Freddie G. Burton, Jr., Chief Judge of Wayne County Probate Court, the Mayor of Westland, William R. (Bill) Wild, Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, and countless other community partners to see the significant value that our organization has created to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

2. Would you be willing to return to K-12 education either full time or as a interim superintendent while a district does a national search?

Yes.  It will be interesting to see what opportunities will come in front of me to consider. I have been approached over the past few years on several occasions asking me to consider such a role–both in K-12 and higher education. This could be an enjoyable way to continue to to contribute to the educational field where there is a great need.

3. With you background, you would be a natural to lead a community college or a private or public university. Any interest?

Thanks. Leading a university or community college would be a wonderful way to cap my career.  I am very grateful for the educational foundation provided by my local Community College, Henry Ford.  Michigan is blessed to have 28 community colleges strategically located around our state that serve as a spring board to jobs, opportunity and as a ladder to advance further up the educational ladder.  My support for community college education is personal as well as professional.

I am a product of Michigan’s excellent community college system with degrees from Michigan State and Wayne State built upon the solid education I received at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn.

I would not have had the exciting, eclectic and rewarding career I enjoy without the educational foundation provided by the excellent instructors at Henry Ford — they are there to teach, and they do so with passion, excellence and hands-on experience.

My career journey has included stops at: establishing a shelter for run-a-way youth, being elected to local office, serving as a management consultant to a major CPA firm, running a  successful gubernatorial  campaign, holding successively broader leadership positions in the former Michigan Department of Mental Health, culminating as being appointed by the governor to serve as director, serving as a special assistant to the president of Wayne State University, leading a countywide private business association, serving as Michigan’s state superintendent of public schools, consulting in China and reinventing one of the largest behavioral health organizations in the nation. My success was built on the foundations provided by HFCC- aka, “Hank High” and “Harvard on the Rouge”.  We cannot and will not compete with developing nations on low-wage and low-skilled jobs. Our future depends on skilled, knowledgeable and flexible workers who can pivot rapidly and stay ahead of our global competitors. That workforce is being prepared today by a community college and local university near you.

4. Can you explain how China fits into your career and interest?

I have a lifelong interest in China, sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. I believe that the China/US relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. All major global issues going forward will intersect at the intersection of Washington, DC and Beijing. Our leaders at the national, state and local level need to find ways to assure China’s continued rise does not come at our demise. The ancient Chinese Philosopher, Confucius, reminds us: “He who learns but does not think, is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

We need to rebuild the US while staying connected to the world. Much of this work can be done through education and healthcare.

Building Great Walls and becoming isolationist in a global economy, where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe instantaneously, will not make America great.

Would you advise Michigan’s governor on China?

5. Can you tell our readers about your important work in mental health?

The work I have done with my team the last 4 years has been some of the most valuable in my career. We have a great deal to add value and make a difference in the lives of some of our communities most vulnerable citizens. As a system, what is needed is a focus on the value and dignity of the people we serve, to continue the struggle to eliminate stigma, support treatment efforts and continue to build important partnerships that maximize public resources that support, help, care for, and treat people in need – our family members, neighbors and friends with serious mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities and persons with substance use disorders. We need to continually remind ourselves it is about service, care support, and human decency – not power, control and politics.

There is no “I” In Team

Be clear, the strength and improvements at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is a result

of a team effort. See more at:

6. What is the story on your work around anti stigma?

We know that with proper diagnosis, treatment and support– recovery is possible— we see it every day. Our team has worked very proud to produce material to help combat the stigma that prevents far too many people from seeking the help they need and deserve. We produced two documentaries: Opening Minds-Ending Stigma ( that were nominated for an Emmy Award) that can be found on YouTube: Opening Minds…Ending Stigma

7. Why did you produce a documentary about how to access public mental health services?

Far too many people are unaware of how to access the public mental system and for the reasons I just pointed out about, we know that when people have the proper diagnosis, treatment and support– recovery is possible. The recent documentary we produced and aired in CBS-Detroit has helped get the world out– that help is possible and available. It helped promote our 24/7 crisis line: 800 241-4949

Watch: Accessing Mental Healthcare in My Community on YouTube for more information on this important project driven my/our staff and exceptional community partners.

8. How has Michigan tapped into the China wave to assure you can benefit from their investment around the globe?

I have just written an article on this very subject. Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder, has made China a priority and is making his seventh trip to China this summer (an annual event – once each year he’s been in office), has a vision for developing a strong and lasting relationship between Michigan and China. His trips represent the planting a tree that he as Governor may well never enjoy in its full shade, but the people of Michigan and China will for years to come.  I am proud to work with Gov Snyder on this important work and advise the state as a member of the advisor board for the Michigan-China Innovation Center.

9. With your diverse background and experience in leadership roles in public, private, nonprofit and government sectors; cutting across, politics, business, higher education, pre-K-12, media, China and behavioral healthcare how do you meld this rich tapestry of experience in an encore roll after you success in transforming the Detroit Wayne Mental Health agency– into an independent Authority?

First, the success we have produced at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is because of our great team effort. I am proud to have worked with this exceptional group of professionals.  As to what comes next, I am not exactly sure. I am open to any leadership role that enables me to continue to add value and make a difference to our community– be that local, statewide, nationally and internationally. I layout some additional thoughts in an article here:

Know When to Fold ‘Em

10. Is there anything else I have failed to ask that you would like to add?

Just to thank you and EdNews for all the great work you do and for providing a forum to me and others to express our ideas. Please feel free to contact and follow me on twitter@tdwatkins88

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