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Model D-troiter: Frank Wu

Nearly everything Frank Wu does is a personal statement, fueled by the passion of social justice. So when faculty colleagues at Howard University Law School questioned Wu’s decision to move to Detroit to become dean of Wayne State University Law School in 2004, he was somewhat defensive: “This is my hometown you’re talking about.”

Few people in this nomadic, post-modern culture have a chance to live their adult lives in their hometown, says Wu. Even fewer return here by choice. He says he wasn’t considering any other dean positions. Wayne State gave him a professional reason to come home.

Wu announced his resignation as dean of WSU Law School last month, citing what he says were family health reasons. He says he will remain at the helm until May 2008 to make for a better transition of leadership.

Test of character

Actually, his boyhood home is Canton Township, 40 miles from where Wu redefined his home in Lafayette Park, on Detroit’s Near East Side – once again, to the surprise of his colleagues who expected a university official of his stature to live in one of the affluent suburbs. “When I said I was going to live in the city, I wanted people to understand I meant the city proper,” Wu says. “Symbolically it makes a difference” to law students, and it makes a difference to him. In fact, Wu notes that two people from the law school have moved into Lafayette Park since Wu came.

Some people questioned his sincerity. "They said 'he must really want the job – he’s willing to say anything,' ” Wu says. “No one thought someone would move here and move into the city. That’s the whole point, to me, of being here.” It reflects the controversial nature of a law professor who became the first Asian to teach at Howard University, a historic African American law school. “I was there because I wanted to make a statement,” he says. “This is very much a continuation of that.”

Moving to Detroit was “a test of character,” he says. “The work I do is about civil rights, it’s about civic engagement, it’s about participating in this diverse democracy of ours. ... This was a chance for me to roll up my sleeves and really do it.”

Building a better society

Wu, a Chinese American and author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White,” left his first love of architecture in 1982 when a young Chinese man — Vincent Chin — was beaten to death in Detroit by two white unemployed auto workers. A framed photograph of people protesting the Chin murder hangs in his kitchen. The protesters carried a banner that said, “It’s not fair.”  Wu calls the murder “an important story about Detroit.”

“I wanted to grow up and design houses and skyscrapers. It was at that moment that I decided to stand up and speak out, to have a voice and influence the world," he says. "I didn’t know Vincent Chin or his family – but I knew that (he) could be my father, my cousin. That is why I’m not an architect.”

This summer, Wu will speak in Detroit at the 25th anniversary of the Chin murder.

He left the area in 1988 to pursue his education and law profession thinking he would never return. He received his undergraduate degree at the Johns Hopkins University, but returned to Michigan for his doctorate in Law from the University of Michigan, then moved to San Francisco to work for a law firm. He joined the faculty of Howard University in 1995.

Wu is the co-chair of the Board of Trustees for Gallaudet University, the nation’s only university primarily for the deaf and hearing-impaired. He was appointed by Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams as Chair of the D.C. Human Rights Commission, and has served on the Board of Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund He is a member of the Committee of 100, a group that promotes Asian American political affairs. He has been named among the top 20 scholars in the United States by “Black Issues in Higher Education.”

As an Asian minority, Wu identifies with civil rights, yet like a judge he hears “two competing narratives” of contemporary Detroit history. Both are of loss: one, from a white perspective prior to the 1967 riot, and the other, from a black perspective after 1967. Yet in the telling of these stories, Wu also hears a third theme from both sides: “I wish it could be better.”

Like many, Wu wrestles with the need to restore a sense of urbanity to the core city, while building bridges throughout the greater region. He also shares nostalgic memories of Hudson’s, Sander’s and Vernor’s. “I want people to tap into that set of memories," he says. "So that the nostalgia could be turned into something more productive, that has practical use.”

At the same time, he denies what may appear to be unbridled idealism. “It isn’t so much that I’m idealistic. In many ways, I’m pragmatic. I realize it’s necessary to do these things. … If the city of Detroit is to have any chance, it must become better educated. It must attract immigrants.”

He challenges other Asian Americans and immigrants throughout Southeast Michigan to show that they have a stake in the community.

Social architecture

Wu may have never actually left his first love of architecture. Living in the renowned Lafayette Park, designed by famed urban architect Mies van der Rohe, feeds Wu’s architectural imagination. In a real sense, however, he’s practicing a kind of social architecture – building anew within the ruins of the old. “People are drawn to architecture out of the desire to control the environment," he says, "to be able to build the perfect house, the perfect building, the perfect structure. This is metaphorically the same. It’s about building society.”

In his day job, Wu helped build a law school environment steeped in the principle of diversity, with a defined sense of place. “It’s not just that I believe in Detroit, I believe in Wayne State University. Every great city has a great university. This institution has always been the institution in the city, for the city, by the city, about the city."

Wu does a lot of public speaking, but no topic moves him like speaking about the future of this city.

"(WSU's) fate is tied to Detroit’s. People may have a different view of their fate, but it’s clear to everyone here – as goes Detroit, so goes Wayne State University," he says. "But there’s another piece to that: as goes Wayne State, so goes Detroit.”

Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Model D.


Frank Wu Photographs and Lafayette Park Photograph Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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