On the upswing: Former law school dean finds way back to good health


Photo courtesy of Frank Wu

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

When we last heard from former Wayne State Law dean Frank Wu some three years ago, he was in the throes of a health crisis, battling a little-known disease that had turned his life upside down.

Wu, at the time, was a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, where he previously served as dean. It was then and there that he was diagnosed with Pemphigus Vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disease that reportedly kills 75 percent of those affected within two years of diagnosis.

In 2018, in a column appearing in the Daily Journal, a California legal publication, Wu opened up about his health challenges. The column was titled, “Illness Can Make You a Better Person,” and offered a first-hand account of his battle with the disease.

“I was alarmed when I was bleeding through the night, through a T-shirt, pajamas, and the top sheet of the bed,” Wu wrote in the column.

Equally disturbing, he said, was the fact that “my scalp was coated with a slick pus that dried into a hard helmet of crust,” a malady that perplexed his physicians.

“I did not have a proper diagnosis for months,” Wu wrote in the Daily Journal. “I was trying to tough it out and my malady is obscure enough that the specialists explained you cannot blame a general practitioner for failing to recognize it. The initial guess was spider bites.”

But it proved much more serious than that, said Wu.

A biopsy detected a “potentially life-threatening condition” that required Wu to immediately shelve everything on his busy academic schedule.

“The leakage on my scalp, it turns out, was plasma without the blood cells,” he explained.

But, the “best news,” said Wu, was word of a “breakthrough” in treating the disease, a new chemotherapy agent approved only three weeks before he visited with medical experts at the University of California at San Francisco.

“It has a slightly greater than 50 percent success rate,” Wu said.

While Wu was facing an uncertain medical future, his wife, Carol Izumi, a law professor, also was experiencing her own set of health challenges, which began years earlier when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. To add to her medical woes, Izumi needed spinal cord surgery in 2018, an operation that proved to be just “two-thirds successful,” according to Wu. 

“The surgery was fine, but the bones haven’t come together properly, so she cannot turn her neck,” Wu related, noting that she has taken early retirement because of her ongoing health issues.

As for himself, Wu said his serious health situation has given him a different perspective on life.

“At the infusion center, I could see how grateful I ought to be,” Wu wrote. “I walked in. I walked out. I went by myself, because my wife was still indisposed from her own issues. Although it is a real chemotherapy, requiring a day in the hospital for each session, my dosage is relatively low.”

While receiving treatment, Wu crossed paths with a friend. 

“A colleague from work saw me; she was accompanying a friend,” Wu said. “When I saw her again, I asked about the friend – she had passed away.”

Wu, fortunately, is on a decidedly different path.

“I was in the very first cohort of people to get a monoclonal antibody treatment for Pemphigus Vulgaris,” Wu said this week. “This is now being used for COVID, a related type of treatment that originally started off as a new form of chemotherapy.”

The treatment, said Wu, has produced some good news.

“I am now considered in remission,” he said.

His improved state of health opened up an opportunity to return to a leadership role in academia, as in July of 2020 Wu assumed office as the president of Queens College in New York. With the appointment, Wu became the first Asian American to serve as president of Queens, a four-year college with 20,000 students from more than 150 countries.

The son of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, Wu grew up in Metro Detroit and earned his bachelor’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University. He obtained his law degree from the University of Michigan. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Asian Pacific Fund Chang-Lin Tien Award, presented for leadership in higher education.

Wu admits that he misses Detroit and will always consider himself a “Detroiter.”

Said Wu: “There is so much excitement in the city now.”

Such a feeling can be matched by how Wu looks at life now.

“I have realized what others before me have: Illness can make you a better person,” he wrote. “Law – the study, the teaching, the practice, and the application – can and should be rational. Those of us trained in it, however, have had our empathy if not eliminated, then decreased.

“We do not notice our privileges. Paramount among them is health. If we lose what we have enjoyed, even taken for granted, we should appreciate what remains, which those around us may always have been and still be denied. I have been inspired. I understand what matters.”

Former dean’s debate question may have turned mayoral tide

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Throughout his professional career, Frank Wu has been known as a forward thinker, so much so that back in 2005 he was asking questions about our preparedness for a worldwide pandemic, some 15 years before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

Somewhat curiously, Wu’s questions also may have unintentionally played an important role in Kwame Kilpatrick’s bid for re-election in the 2005 Detroit mayoral race.

Please underscore the word “unintentionally,” Wu almost assuredly would say given the trajectory that Kilpatrick’s career took during his second term as Detroit mayor.

Wu was a panelist along with Detroit television anchor Carmen Harlan in the 2005 mayoral debate between Kilpatrick and challenger Freman Hendrix. The debate was staged at Wayne State and drew a standing room only crowd, due in large measure to questions surrounding Kilpatrick’s character and a long-rumored wild party at the Manoogian Mansion during his first term as mayor.

Entering the debate, Hendrix reportedly held a surprising 10-point lead in the polls against the incumbent, according to Wu, citing an episode of a Detroit podcast produced by crimetownshow.com. 

“I was astonished to be informed,” said Wu in reference to the podcast, that the “mayoral debate at Wayne State University from 2005 is cited as the turning point” in the race.

“And specifically, my question was described as when everything shifted.”

That question, posed first to Hendrix and then to Kilpatrick, was this: “Scientists are making a dire prediction that there is the potential of a global flu pandemic that could affect millions of lives around the world. How would you ensure that we are ready for something like that and any other catastrophe in Detroit?” Wu asked.

Hendrix, by most press accounts, gave a less-than-scintillating answer, offering Kilpatrick a chance to pounce when it was his turn.

And pounce the incumbent mayor did, telling a suddenly charged audience that he would have an evacuation and quarantine plan in place, and would move aggressively to address the needs of children and the elderly.

In short, it was a mayoral moment for Kilpatrick and the beginning of the end for Hendrix’s bid to unseat the incumbent.

In retrospect, Wu found that his trip back in time to the debate revealed an “even more astonishing” fact.

“(That) back in 2005 I was thinking about a pandemic and that is the subject I brought up.”

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