Cynthia Wilbanks, University of Michigan vice president for government relations, announced her plans to retire in December 2020. She served as the vice president at the University for 22 years, and is the longest-serving executive officer.
In her tenure as vice president, Wilbanks worked to develop University responses to proposed local, state and federal legislation. She also worked with government officials at all levels and oversaw several state outreach programs.
In a statement, University President Mark Schlissel praised Wilbanks for her deep knowledge and tireless work ethic.
“In my view, her vast knowledge of our state, its issues, history, people and, of course, those elected to serve is unparalleled,” Schlissel said. “Cynthia has always applied her keen understanding when advocating for our students, faculty and staff in city hall, Lansing, Congress or the White House.”
Beyond her role as vice president, Wilbanks served in a leadership capacity in many other University programs and projects including the Bentley Historical Library Executive Committee, Bicentennial Planning Committee 2011-12, Ginsberg Center Board, Hospital and Health Centers Executive Board, Honorary Degree Committee, Michigan in Washington Program Faculty Advisory Committee and the Residency Appeals Committee.
In an interview with The Daily, Wilbanks cited the power and strength of her relationships with colleagues, elected officials and organizations near and far as the hallmark of her role.
“The key to me, and it’s always been this, is the value of strong relationships,” Wilbanks said. “Fundamentally, this work isn’t possible without a commitment to building strong relationships.”
LSA alum Nadav Neuman, who worked as a Government Relations Intern in the Office of the Vice President for Government Relations, told The Daily Wilbanks is a leader who commands respect and recognizes the power in cultivating relationships.
“Everyone in the office has nothing but good to say about her,” Neuman said. “She’s an amazing person and she’s definitely served the University very well over her 20-plus years.”
Though Neuman worked under the State Relations Office, a subsidiary of the Government Relations Office, he said Wilbanks made sure to recognize and give attention to employees at all levels of the organization.
“She really showed a keen interest in students and helping them develop,” Neuman said. “When you’re working at any place, having the head boss come in and ask you what you’re doing is always an awesome experience and it makes you feel good.”
Wilbanks served as an advisor to Schlissel on the University Research Corridor, a project linking the state of Michigan’s three research universities: the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. She said the project was born out of the desire to showcase Michigan’s research universities as an economic powerhouse and beneficial for the state.
“(The University Research Corridor) was born out of the strong belief that the state of Michigan was among just a handful of states where there were three very strong research universities,” Wilbanks said. “We believe that the asset that it represents for the state is an enormously powerful asset.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilbanks said the universities have collaborated in the fields of epidemiology, public health and education.
“Our researchers came to understand that a part of their work for a period of time and likely into the future could be focused on COVID research, and each of us are doing things in our own domains, and there are some opportunities for collaboration … in the health field,” Wilbanks said. “(Also) our deans of education came together to write a piece about the importance of continuity in education for K-12 kids in a COVID environment, and the kinds of things that they would advance to support learning even in this very challenging educational environment in K-12.”
Wilbanks cited Michigan’s 1998 establishment of term limits for state officials as one of the greatest challenges of her role, as frequent turnover in the Michigan legislature created difficulties for maintaining long-term government relationships.
“The rapid turnover every two years of a fairly sizable number of members of the Michigan legislature really created many challenges –– continuity, stability, institutional knowledge,” Wilbanks said. “It really was all challenged in ways completely derived from the fact that individuals elected with all the best intentions simply didn’t have as much time as many of us who are advocates would prefer to really deepen the relationships and deepen the knowledge of those to whom we turn for our support.”
Despite these challenges, Wilbanks was effusive and grateful to her colleagues and collaborators.
“It has been a grand journey,” Wilbanks said. “All the twists and turns in my career have been exceedingly satisfying and this journey at Michigan has been just the privilege of my life. The ability to work with colleagues equally committed to the values, the mission, the promise of the University of Michigan, my alma mater, has just been a gift and I am grateful for that opportunity.”
Summer News Editor Julia Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org