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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Why Write Vanilla?

March 17, 2017 

Ideas matter.

It seems if one is going to step out and express ideas, thoughts and opinions it should be to motivate our leaders and citizenry to think, pause, reflect and, at times, act. 

An opinion piece ought to take a stand.  That is what I attempt to do.

My columns sometimes draw the ire of readers who take shots at me publicly and privately.  My columns, here and elsewhere are simply one person’s opinion, designed to provoke thought, discussion, reaction, even vehement disagreement and, from time-to-time, action.

Quite honestly, I would rather spark an attack than apathy.

I am not a “reporter” or “journalist” that is seeking balance; nor am I trying to tell “both sides of the story.”  What I offer up is my take, my opinion, my ideas, my feelings, my beliefs on important issues of the day.  I try not to write “vanilla.”  I offer my own personal opinion, like it or not. 

I also am not egotistical enough to believe that I could not be misinformed—or just down right wrong.  Having six siblings has kept me humble in this regard—they are always willing to remind me, “You are not the smartest in the family!” 

I encourage my staff to challenge my ideas and beliefs.  I have learned throughout my life that diversity of thought helps forge a better outcome.  Ideas openly discussed make for better decisions.

Depending on the day and column, I have been branded a “bleeding heart liberal” and a “right wing conservative-reactionary.”  Sometimes these searing brands have been burned into my backside based on the same article!

Label Jars – Not People

As I’ve stated, I have been accused of being a “right wing reactionary,” a “Trumpite,” a “Democratic Party/Liberal/Labor hack,” and an “apologist for the political left”.  Mostly, I just laugh off the labeling as an attempt to use my thoughts to support or discredit whatever ideology one chooses to embrace or discredit.

Clearly some folks have misconstrued my words, even clipping and rearranging them to support their ideological bent on social media or by other means.  I don’t have the time or inclination to attempt to police how what I write and utter may be used or misconstrued, when, or where.  With technology today, ideas can and do move around the globe instantaneously.

Thoughts, Ideas, Truth and Liberty Matter

Now, perhaps more than ever, with an ideologically and politically divided nation we need to follow the old Railway track warning: “Stop, Look and Listen.”  We need to be open to each other’s ideas and even consider that our own may not be absolute—or absolutely correct.

We need people to express their ideas and beliefs on the open market for rigorous debate.  We need to be extremely careful not to shut down thought, but to openly debate ideas.  The death of free thought and open debate will help kill our democracy.

We need an open marketplace of ideas and an open environment where these ideas can be discussed and debated.  To stymy, belittle, or humiliate people for expressing ideas wherever they might fall along the vast political spectrum is truly dangerous.  The New York Times made this point in a recent column when Jim Rutenberg wrote, “This is how the muzzling starts: Not with a boot on your neck, but with the fear of one that runs so deep that you muzzle yourself.”

We as individuals, a community, region, state and nation need to encourage people to express ideas, think, have civil debate, and be willing to consider that we are not always right, nor are we always wrong.

We need to embrace what my first boss told me: “If we both agreed on everything, one of us is not necessary.”

All progress begins with thoughts and ideas. 

Tom Watkins  served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He is the President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority ( He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


March 16, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joe Nathan // Mar 17, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Years ago someone gave me a poster saying “Behold the turtle – who makes progress only when sticking its neck out!” The history of American progress is in part the history of people willing to challenge/question/and suggest new, potentially better ideas/products/services.
    Thanks for being part of that tradition, Tom.

  • 2 Bill Kerans // Mar 17, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Well said, Tom. I fully agree, “…diversity of thought helps forge a better outcome. Ideas openly discussed make for better decisions.”
    To which I would add, “…and a stronger, better society.”
    Since you’re a leading educator, perhaps you know a forum in which to share your thoughts with every college president and others on our campuses, where diversity of thought seems no longer very welcome, and people who do not adhere to the “correct” philosophy are often stymied, belittled, or humiliated, even shouted down and prevented from speaking.
    I see this as a far greater danger than any threat to press freedom or diversity of opinion in the media.
    As you said so well, “We need an open marketplace of ideas and an open environment where these ideas can be discussed and debated. To stymy, belittle, or humiliate people for expressing ideas wherever they might fall along the vast political spectrum is truly dangerous.”
    Mr. Rutenberg, who you quote in support of this proposition, was warning of suppression of press freedom, and even self-censorship, as a result of Mr. Trump’s blustering. I see absolutely no danger of that. There’s ample evidence that Rutenberg’s publication and others will not knuckle under to any political figure–quite the opposite, in fact.
    And, finally, Tom, I would never besmirch you with any of those labels–particularly the conservative or right-wing ones.
    Excellent column.
    -Bill Kerans

  • 3 Tom // Mar 17, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Bill– open, respectful Dialog across the political spectrum is of value in general society and especially on a college campus.
    Dan Hurley is the Director of the state university association representing the Michigan public universities and I am sure he would welcome hearing your thoughts on the topic. His email is:

  • 4 Tom // Mar 17, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Free and opens debate and Dialog is health for our society and should be encouraged– especially at our colleges and universities.
    Dan Hurley is the CEO of the association that represents the public universities in Michigan. He is a bright and open person and sure would welcome hearing from you. His email is

  • 5 TIP LADY // Mar 17, 2017 at 1:00 pm


    Words are very important. It is important that we constantly put new ideas out on the horizon. My concern is that we now live in a world where it is almost impossible to distinguish Facts from Fiction! Words can both inspire and discourage.

    I was talking to a group of students yesterday at the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit. We were talking about Making A Difference and how every single one of us has the Power to Make A Difference. But it requires ACTION!! Words these days are usually interpreted to mean what the reader or listener wants them to mean depending on what side of the issue they happen to be on.

    I appreciate your words Tom and I have been on all sides of the spectrum when I have responded to your columns.

    But I am most inspired when words lead to discussion, critical thinking and positive Action on the part of the reader or listener.

    It is unfortunate that we fail to treat people with respect when we are constantly judging or misjudging their every word and deed.
    ~The TIP Lady

  • 6 Jill // Mar 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Tom – I totally agree as I think we all need to listen to an opinion buy necessarily have to embrace it. People get hung up on the idea that your opinion is their challenge rather than your opinion or anyone’s opinion is to be listened to, you do not have to own it. By TR to hear what and how others think as we are all indicisuals.

  • 7 Jon // Mar 19, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Good article Tom, but I never considered you an idea guy.



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