Detroit Free Press: 7 questions with Wayne State's new business school dean Virginia Kleist

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published by the Detroit Free Press

Talk about a riveting resume and the right job coming together. 

It happened when Virginia Kleist was named dean of Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business. The three-time Fulbright scholar taught early in her career in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and Ufa, Russia, and has lots of additional global experience.

For the last 23 years, the Pittsburgh native worked at West Virginia University, most recently as its associate dean of graduate programs, before coming to take on the Detroit job in July. She has background in tech, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity and held jobs at PNC Bank, Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, Joy Technologies and GTE (now Verizon). 

She’s made inspiring entrepreneurship and diversity a hallmark of her career and hopes to do more at the Ilitch school. It has 40,000 alums and offers six majors, seven graduate programs and 13 MBA concentrations. 

“We had a number of outstanding candidates, but Virginia’s extensive leadership experience and her preparedness stood out ...,” said Mark Kornbluh, WSU provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, “and she has a passion for students like ours with limited resources, but lots of grit.”

Kleist and her husband, Paul Kleist, a cardiologist, are settling in. I posed a few questions to her. Her answers have been edited for space: 

QUESTION: Had you spent any time in Detroit before this? 

ANSWER: Our boys (two, adult age) played amateur hockey here long ago. They played teams called Little Caesars and Belle Tire at the time, and let’s just say that our Pittsburgh boys didn’t always win here! 

I’m delighted to be here and am finding Detroit to be a wonderful city to explore. My husband and I just had a great visit to the Henry Ford and a dinner last week. There’s always something to do in Detroit that’s interesting and fun.  

Q: How do you plan to help the business school? 

A: It is a wonderful place and we are without a doubt the business educational gem of this city and region. Our faculty and staff take great pride in our collective work as we elevate and educate our students, help them to achieve their very highest potential, and engage in our city at this moment in time. 

Q: You’ve been here several months. Any moments stand out? 

A: I think that my favorite anecdotes involve our students. They make me so very proud. One woman has a job offer in the accounting area from Deloitte at a very high salary. She grew up in foster care in Detroit and gritted her way through our undergraduate program while working jobs and studying hard. Another student chose us over Michigan because she knew that she would graduate with zero debt. And I recently met a young man, an Ilitch School freshman, who is an intern at Accenture in their high technology learning space. He’s a first-generation college student. These stories make me feel very proud of our students. 

Q: On the heels of Ford's announcement Monday of its new EV battery plant, GM creating more EVs and Stellantis too, how are you keeping up with evolving talent needs  of area businesses? 

A: Wayne State is an exceptional university. To many, it is just the local, urban university that has always been down the street. To me, it is a top research university, highly ranked as a Carnegie classification research level one. Most of our students study while holding down at least one job, making them experts at time management too.  

Q: The school is named after Mike Ilitch. You ever met him or Marian Ilitch? 

A: No, but I was fortunate to meet Chris Ilitch (their son) when I interviewed and we had a wonderful two-hour conversation. I cannot thank the Ilitch family enough for their generosity to Wayne State (Mike and Marian Ilitch donated $40 million to the business school in 2015 and it was named after ‘Mr. I’). I loved hearing the story of Mike Ilitch, and how he paid the rent and bills for Rosa Parks and kept this anonymous. This is a family who cares about their community and this city. I have spent a lot of time with the people working on the new Detroit Center for Innovation — both the Related (Cos.) and Olympia Development folks — and firmly believe all of the land around the Mike Ilitch School of Business will soon be a prosperous, vibrant, bustling and successful business corridor. I envision that this will happen in the next five years or less.  

Q: Do you plan to add more entrepreneur programs? 

A: I would like to create a master’s in entrepreneurship and innovation with a two-class capstone requirement that requires the student to learn via experiential learning with real-world projects such as launching a student startup, working with an entrepreneur’s startup, partnering with TechTown or consulting with a group such as the Rotary micro-lending projects.  

Q: What about diversity? 

A: We are laser focused on it. We’re pleased about Wayne State’s new initiative from the Mellon Foundation that will fund 30 new humanities faculty to create the Detroit Center for Black Studies. We are also working on our programming to be more community focused. We just hosted a tribute to (the) Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the college, and later this month will offer a panel on diversity in the C-Suite led by three Detroit executives. Our work in inclusion and diversity … is a work in progress.  

View all news stories