Eastern Michigan University
Former journalist turned PR professional Geoff Larcom looks back on the tenure of Regents Tom Sidlik and Roy Wilbanks
Every so often, the energetic, brisk voice would crackle over my phone at The Ann Arbor News. It was an Eastern Michigan University regent calling.
“Why don’t you write about (insert cool person or event)?” Tom Sidlik would say, or words to that effect. “Hey, there are so many great things going on here!”
Not all the calls were negative. Tom would also call to note stories of mine he liked.
But negative or positive, annoyed or delighted, I never discouraged Tom’s input. The point is we—reporter and regent—had a relationship, and Tom really cared about EMU receiving a fair portrayal in the media.
I admired that passion. Tom, who had spent his career in top administrative posts at Chrysler, had no extensive connection to Eastern before becoming a board member. He simply fell in love with the place.
I enjoyed a similarly close relationship with Roy Wilbanks, who, along with Tom, completed an eight-year term on the Board of Regents this past December. Both served as chairs, Tom from 2007-2009, and Roy from 2009-2012.
“An informed choice for an EMU regent; they nailed it,” I remember thinking when Governor Jennifer Granholm announced Roy’s appointment in December of 2004.
I knew of Roy, who had held a variety of top positions at Eastern and played key roles in various major fundraising efforts covered by The Ann Arbor News. I even remembered one of his pet sayings: “Plan the work and then work the plan.”
I also had a personal connection with Roy. He and my brother-in-law, Larry Fowler, a great admirer of his, both taught and were varsity athletics coaches during the early 1970s at Ypsilanti High School. Larry went on to a variety of teaching and coaching jobs around the country, while Roy, Ypsilanti High alum, remained here after returning from college—the quintessential hometown boy giving back, over and over.
Like Tom, Roy cared about Eastern and grew deeply invested in its success. As a journalist, I developed a sophisticated relationship with him, one of mutual trust and benefit, but with a sharp understanding of our different roles. I spent a lot of time talking to him about things other than my next story. That depth led to several scoops on major EMU news.
Tom and Roy enjoyed a strikingly productive eight-year tenure on the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents. Highlights include appointing Susan Martin as president in the summer of 2008, a move that has brought a sense of caring, leadership and commitment to campus.
The two also oversaw an unprecedented period of strategic construction and renovation at Eastern.
Their tenures included building the new Student Center; an addition to the Science Complex and a refurbished Phase II for the complex; renovating the Pray-Harrold classroom building; opening a new police and safety building; a new indoor athletic practice facility; refurbishing McKenny Hall; renovating residence halls and the overall beautification of campus.
The two helped oversee these efforts while keeping student costs as low as possible. EMU led the state of Michigan in tuition restraint the past four years, with an average annual increase of only 2.86 percent. That effort included EMU’s nationally recognized measure of freezing tuition, fees and housing costs two years ago, a move Tom pushed for vigorously.
“I am proud and gratified by the changes and improvements that have occurred on campus during this time,” Roy said upon finishing his tenure. “It’s been important, complex and satisfying work that drew upon outstanding efforts by the regents, administration, faculty, staff and students.”
Tom said, “It’s been a privilege to represent the people of Michigan on the governing board of EMU for these past eight years. Starting with our great faculty in the classrooms to the Board of Regents, Eastern is a student-focused university that truly cares about student success in all aspects of their stay here.”
Yet these years contained challenges as well. Roy and Tom began their terms as Eastern was emerging from a controversy over the University’s failure to fully report the costs of University House, a story that I helped report and that created wide distrust among state legislators and the community.
I was also a lead reporter in the story about the handling of information in the death of EMU student Laura Dickinson, which led to the resignation of several top administrators and EMU’s president.
With EMU in great distress, it fell to the Board of Regents to take decisive action. Led by Tom, the board engaged an outside law firm to conduct a thorough investigation that, because of its transparency and diligence, began the healing process that led Eastern to the strong position it occupies today.
Those were tough stories, times that tested a relationship between board members and reporters. But I always found both men accessible and honest in their assessment of EMU and what needed to be done.
My EMU reporting duties ceased when The Ann Arbor News folded in 2009, and I had the good fortune to apply my understanding of Eastern to a new job working in Welch Hall, of all places.
My understanding of Roy and Tom’s level of service only deepened the past three years. They left a remarkable and enduring footprint.
I appreciated watching it all unfold, from both sides of the fence.
Note: Geoff Larcom, EMU’s executive director for media relations, worked as a reporter and editor for The Ann Arbor News for 25 years. He covered Eastern Michigan University from 2004 until the paper’s closure in July 2009.