Chief to Leave WSU Post to Become Consultant
Carol Cain, Detroit Free Press, September 19, 2005
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Like a rock
climber working his way up the mountain, Tom Watkins is leaving
one perch -- Wayne State University -- to reach for another by
starting an educational consulting firm to work with school
districts and other clients.
He has the pedigree for it.
As Michigan's schools superintendent from 2001 to until January
of this year, he oversaw 750 school districts and charter
schools. He created the first charter schools in Michigan and
Florida and spent a good chunk of his career working to improve
the situation for young people, particularly those from less
Watkins, 51, knows about that.
He was raised in a working class family from the Washington,
D.C., area that moved here when he was 17.
He recalls watching his dad, Tom Watkins Sr., who managed a
trucking company, deal with a diverse workforce by treating
everyone the same regardless of who they were.
"He's my role model," Watkins says of his dad, now retired.
Watkins is the third-oldest in a family of seven children and
the first to go to college. He attended Henry Ford Community
College and Michigan State University, working at Ford Motor
Co.'s Rouge complex and at another job to help pay his way.
He learned firsthand how liberating and transforming education
can be, which is why much of his career has been centered on
educating young people, as well as business leaders and
He says his own entrepreneurial, rock-climbing career path will
become the norm for today's young people.
"We need more entrepreneurs in private and public life," says
Watkins, a divorced father of two: Daniel, 20, who attends
Schoolcraft College in Livonia, and Katherine, 17, a senior at
Northville High School.
Watkins was involved with the Cherry Commission Report,
spearheaded by Lt. Gov. John Cherry and released last year,
focusing on numerous educational issues, including the need for
more entrepreneurial training in Michigan's schools.
A shelter for runaways
Watkins' diverse career has extended beyond the worlds of
business and politics. He started a shelter in Inkster for
runaway youths. He was deputy chief of staff for former Gov.
James Blanchard. He was president of the Economic Council, an
influential business organization of 150 CEOs in Palm Beach,
Fla., similar to Detroit Renaissance.
He helped reform Wayne County as a charter commissioner in 1982.
He led Michigan's billion-dollar mental health system through
the turbulent 1980s.
While he was state school superintendent, test scores rose as
the department's budget decreased.
A resident of North Rosedale Park in Detroit in the 1980s, he
got into politics for the first time and was elected to the
Wayne County Charter Commission.
Barbara Gattorn, senior adviser of the Detroit Regional Chamber,
served with him on the commission.
"He's a problem solver for people who don't have a voice,"
Gattorn says, adding he came by it "naturally from his mother,"
Pat, whom Gattorn knew when she worked at Christ Child, a social
service agency for abused children.
He joined public accountant and business adviser Plante & Moran
in Southfield as a consultant. That's when he caught the eye of
Ron Thayer, who was putting together the kitchen cabinet that
helped Blanchard get elected in 1982.
"He worked well with people from all walks of life and
backgrounds," says Thayer, now at Brogan Partners in Troy.
Working at various public and private sector jobs put him in
touch with all kinds of people. A longtime Democrat, he is known
for his ability to work both sides of the aisle.
"Tom and I struck up a friendship in 1992 through the Michigan
Political Leadership program" at Michigan State University, says
Craig DeRoche, 34, Michigan's Republican speaker of the House.
"Coming from a 'fix-it' mode kind of personality -- he doesn't
care who wins or who loses -- just getting the parties to a
point where they can agree is the most important thing," DeRoche
Led Economic Council
After moving to Palm Beach in 1996 to follow his former
wife, a Ford Motor Co. lawyer who had taken a job there, he
assumed the top position at the Economic Council.
While there he started the Community Advisory Board, a coalition
of community, government and business leaders that among other
things successfully worked to prevent the closing of St. Mary's
Medical Center, which served indigent people in West Palm Beach.
Dave Lawrence, former publisher of the Detroit Free Press and
Miami Herald, who knew Watkins in Detroit and while Watkins ran
the Economic Council in Florida, mentions his strong advocacy.
"He is concerned about kids and helping to prepare them for the
new economy," says Lawrence, now president of the Early
Childhood Initiative Foundation of Miami.
His focus since March
Which is precisely what Watkins has been focusing on since
March, when he was named special assistant to Wayne State
University President Irvin Reid.
He's been putting together a comprehensive report that is about
to be released on e-learning for children in the K-12 years and
is wrapping up his six-month contract at WSU.
While important, this report is unlikely to grab the headlines
that his last did.
In December, Watkins wrote about the challenges Michigan's
educational system faces. Among his conclusions: The $12-billion
system needs to be pared down.
And skyrocketing benefit costs for teachers and administrators
-- which account for two-thirds of all new dollars invested in
schools -- need to be analyzed and better solutions found to
provide benefits in a more efficient way.
Though similar conversations are being had at most
municipalities and companies in the state, the report sparked a
It ended several weeks later with Watkins being asked to leave
after squabbling with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who wanted to have
her own person in the job. (Watkins had been named during
Republican Gov. John Engler's tenure.)
Watkins doesn't see any point to talking about the matter.
"I wish the best for the governor and the children of our
state," he says.
He focuses instead on his new role and latest entrepreneurial
After being sought out for years for his ideas on businesses,
education, health care and government reform, Watkins says he
came to the realization he could make a living doing that at his
"I've basically operated as an entrepreneur my whole life," he
says. "This isn't really any different."
Personal: Divorced; father of Daniel, 20, and Katherine, 17.
•Michigan superintendent of public education, director of
Michigan Department of Mental Health.
•Created the first charter schools in Michigan and Florida.
•Held faculty and administrative positions at Wayne State
• Served as president of The Economic Council -- an organization
of 150 CEOs in Palm Beach, Fla.
•Helped reform Wayne County as charter commissioner member in
•Worked as a consultant at Plante & Moran.
•Authored a book in 2004: "They Help Us Paint Rainbows," a
collection of students' reflections on the question, "What makes
your teacher great?"
Contact Tom Watkins at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Carol Cain hosts "Michigan Matters" on
WWJ-TV (Channel 62) 11:30 a.m. Saturdays and WKBD-TV (Channel
50) 9:30 a.m. Sundays. If you have information on your business,
please mail it to Small Business, Detroit Free Press, 600 W.
Fort St., Detroit 48226, fax it to 313-222-5992 or e-mail
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