With a Wayne State connection, alumnae help lead a Texas university

At the University of Houston Downtown (UHD), two deans share a special connection.

Although Chris Birchak, Ph.D., and DoVeanna Fulton, Ph.D., come from different backgrounds, their lives and careers were shaped by an institution more than 1,200 miles away in the heart of Detroit. The two deans realized their Wayne State University connection during a meeting shortly after Fulton arrived on UHD’s campus. 

“Dean Birchak informed me that we were both Wayne State alumni, and I think we recognized that we have a certain perspective that’s different than others,” Fulton said. 

“We had a lot of laughs about it in that meeting,” Birchak said.  “We had to be the only two WSU grads on campus, and we thought that was pretty special.”

Birchak, a native Houstonian and proud Texan, earned her master’s in English from Wayne State in 1968 after her husband, a Ph.D. physicist, took a job at the GM Tech Center in Warren. Fulton, a native Detroiter who attended Murray-Wright High School, earned her bachelor’s in English in 1994 from WSU, where passionate professors and an engaging academic environment helped her realize her vision.

Birchak, who celebrated her retirement and the conclusion of a remarkable career this summer, arrived at the University of Houston Downtown in 1985 as an adjunct English lecturer. Since then, she’s taught 16 different writing courses, served as assistant chair of the English department, director of the Professional Writing Program, associate dean of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences and, since 2004, dean of UHD’s University College — the first female dean in the school’s history. 

Birchak celebrating her retirement in June

In her time at UHD, Birchak has played a leading role in developing a robust academic support structure, including an advising center, supplemental instruction services, an honors program and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. She has also helped secure millions of dollars in grants and proposals for the university.  

“It was my background at WSU and being in that environment that has really informed much of the work I’ve done at UHD,” Birchak said. “The breadth and depth of the student body across social and cultural backgrounds, developing that sense of interdisciplinary work and team building — these things were ingrained in me at Wayne State.”

The similarities between Wayne State and UHD are hard to ignore. While UHD is smaller with nearly 14,000 students, both institutions are located in urban environments at the center of their respective cities, serving students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds who have demanding schedules outside the classroom. Birchak noted that most of UHD’s students are transfers, many of whom never finished college in their twenties and are coming back to complete their degrees at an older age.

                                        Fulton (left) with Dr. Cornel West

Fulton became dean of UHD’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2012. Before that, she was an associate professor at the University of Alabama, where she founded the Department of Gender and Race Studies and served as director of graduate studies and African American studies. She has also served on the faculty at Arizona State University, The University of Memphis and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Fulton credits her formative experiences at Wayne State for leading her to UHD. 

“I was able to take an English lit class at WSU in 10th grade as part of a special program,” Fulton said. “That ignited my passion for literature and made me want to be an English professor, but I didn’t have anything to reinforce that vision until I came back to Wayne State for my bachelor’s and Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D.”

While Birchak and Fulton attended Wayne State in different eras, they share fond memories of their time on campus. 

“The snow and ice weren’t familiar to me, but I felt very much at home in Detroit coming from a large metro area like Houston,” Birchak said. “Some of my most vivid memories are having lunch at the DIA and going to shows at the Hilberry Theatre. I think we came down for all the Hilberry productions.” 

Fulton said she always appreciated Wayne State’s consciousness of its relationship to Detroit, recognizing that the campus is part of the city as well. “There’s always a connection, and that made for a special experience,” she said.

While Birchak eases into retirement, Fulton is preparing for another busy year helping UHD grow. Both women’s accomplished careers have taken them across the country and around the world, but their time at Wayne State helped guide them every step of the way. 

“Because of our Wayne State experiences, Dean Birchak and I both know what a successful urban institution looks like,” Fulton said. “I often talk about Wayne State as a model for UHD in terms of the ways we provide access and how we can be conscious of what a diverse student body means for our students, for the city of Houston and the world at large.”

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