In Her Fourth Year as President, Mary Sue Coleman Works to Establish Her Image on Campus

Editor in Chief
Michigan Daily
Michigan State University

The University of Michigan has an identity problem.

As a large public university, it serves the state of Michigan and its residents. It relies on hundreds of millions of dollars from the state each year and cannot raise its tuition rates as high as its private peers. Unlike the private schools, the university has a broader and more complex mission than just grooming a few thousand of the nation’s most elite students.

But it is also quite possibly the world’s largest reservoir of Ivy League rejects. How many of the students here referred to Michigan as their “safety” school as high school seniors? Those same students spend much of their college careers trying to convince themselves that Michigan is second to none when it comes to academic quality.

They want the university to accumulate more Nobel Prizes than any other school; they want The New York Times to mention University of Michigan professors as often as Harvard professors; and they want the next United States president and five U.S. Supreme Court justices to be Michigan alums. They are the students who wear the t-shirts that read, “Harvard: The Michigan of the East.”

In the driver’s seat of this University – an institution filled with people who don’t understand its identity – sits Mary Sue Coleman, a woman with no Ivy League pedigree but who has spent plenty of time in the Midwest.

In the spring of 2002, when the University Board of Regents announced that Coleman would be the 13th president of the University, among the University community and its alumni there was a collective, “Who?”

“When Mary Sue came in, I didn’t know who she was,” said political science and public policy Prof. John Chamberlin.

She was the first president since Robben Fleming took the position in 1968 who had not previously worked at the University – and she was from Iowa. Wasn’t there an administrator somewhere on the East Coast we could have picked off?

Although Coleman has since won him over, when University alum and “60 Minutes” star journalist Mike Wallace heard of the regents’ choice, he was skeptical. He didn’t have any idea who she was, he told me over the phone.

It’s not difficult to understand why the regents chose Coleman. After former President Lee Bollinger left to become president of Columbia University shortly after finishing second to Lawrence Summers in the race to become Harvard’s president, the regents were looking for someone who would stick around for a while. Ann Arbor is full of people who will say they felt used by Bollinger, that he used Michigan as a stepping stone to the East Coast.

One of Bollinger’s most ambitious – and most controversial – ideas was to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the life sciences. The centerpiece of that project was the Life Sciences Institute, which four years ago was not taking off quickly _” to say the least. Regent Olivia Maynard said that four years ago LSI was getting started “but had no direction yet.” As a former scientist herself, Coleman seemed to stand a chance of saving the project.

Coleman says the regents were blunt about which issues they wanted her to tackle. The men’s basketball program was mired in the aftermath of a booster scandal, the affirmative action cases still had not been resolved at the Supreme Court, many of the University’s top administrative positions were empty and its large medical system was facing financial challenges.

It also didn’t hurt her candidacy that she is a woman, the first to serve as University president.

Coleman was the last candidate to be interviewed. “She was spectacular,” Regent Andrea Fischer Newman told me.

And so the regents made their surprise selection, despite the popularity of interim President B. Joseph White, a former Business School dean whom even members of the leftist Students Organized for Labor and Economic Equality liked. When The Michigan Daily was listing its endorsements for the November 2002 elections, the editors slipped in B. Joseph White for University president, months after Coleman had already taken over as president.

Coleman, now 62, started the job just weeks before this year’s seniors started moving into their dorm rooms to begin their freshman year.

As they were just starting to jump into college life, Coleman was jumping into her new job. She had the tough dual assignment of addressing the issues the regents wanted her to tackle and getting to know the University – all without a full team of vice presidents in place. She decided to keep Paul Courant, then the interim provost, on board for three more years; she did not know the University well enough to pick her own provost – the University’s second-highest ranking official. Since becoming president, Coleman has appointed four other vice presidents in addition to a new provost, Teresa Sullivan, who will likely assume the position in June.

Coleman skillfully handled most of the issues bothering the regents – either the work Bollinger started but did not have time to complete or the mess Bollinger left behind, depending on whom you ask. She told me she is happy with the way she dealt with the basketball scandal fallout and that the Life Sciences Institute is “booming,” although Maynard said, “We’re probably not out of the woods yet.” Under Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Robert Kelch, the health system has been making money _” and a lot of it. Coleman has also proven herself a successful fundraiser during a time of declining state support; her Michigan Difference capital campaign is well on its way to raise its goal of $2.5 billion.

After almost two years of tackling those issues and learning the ropes, Coleman outlined her vision for the University in the Pendleton Room of the Michigan Union in 2004. Coleman wanted to maintain the University’s high academic quality, engage the University in the challenges facing American society, promote collaboration and increase access to the University. She announced initiatives on team teaching, ethics, health care and residential life.

“As I told you at the outset, sometimes issues choose a president, and sometimes a president can choose her own issues,” she said near the end of the speech.

The speech presented many good ideas, but it did not present a clear vision for the University or define who Coleman is.

The day I spent with Coleman in December started with breakfast at her house (the big white one on South University Avenue) before most of the campus was awake. She served us coffee, juice, fruit and muffins that were so big I didn’t even try to eat one. I think that hurt her feelings. My photographer and I helped her set and clear the table. Contrary to any impression that Coleman is always surrounded by aides waiting on her hand and foot, there were no cooks or servants around to help. Her husband Kenneth Coleman, a political scientist she met as a student at Grinnell College, left the house shortly after I arrived, and the only company we had were her cats, Betty and Jerry, named after former President Ford and his wife.

At one point while we were standing in her kitchen just about to leave for work, I asked Coleman if she does her own grocery shopping.

“Of course, Jason,” she said wryly. “Who else would do it for me?” She told me she goes to the Kroger on South Industrial all the time, but I still have a hard time imagining her pushing a cart up and down the aisles.

During breakfast, she told me that she went into science largely because of the Soviets’ success with Sputnik. Coleman was a teenager at the time, and she remembers the way the country mobilized to catch up with the Soviet Union.

She said she transitioned into being an administrator by accident, after a position as interim cancer center director opened at the University of Kentucky. At first, she said she didn’t want to take the job, but she soon enjoyed working as an administrator, building programs and raising money. Once her son went off to college, she became associate provost and dean of research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The day I spent with Coleman was the day of the annual potluck at the Fleming Administration Building, where she and most of the University’s top administrators have their offices. Coleman baked cookies, which she said didn’t satisfy her even though she worked on the recipe for weeks, constantly bringing new batches of cookies to work. Finally, at 11 p.m. the night before the potluck, she stopped baking.

Later in the day, she spoke of her admiration for women who, like her, had been successful academics and had families as well, such as UNC scientist Mary Ellen Jones. In science, she said, taking off five years to raise a child isn’t an option. “You can’t just cut it off and expect to pick it up again,” she told me.

Coleman is a down-to-earth woman who is warm and motherly – now grandmotherly. Throughout the day I spent with her, she would show everyone who walked into her nice-but-far-from-extravagant office pictures of her baby granddaughter. She told me that she wanted to buy a stuffed bear as a present for young Emerson Ellis Coleman, and she called the bear company every day until she was sure it would arrive on time.

Her small stature and kind demeanor should be taken with a grain of salt, however. When she’s working, Coleman can become assertive and impatient. During meetings, she often begins to punctuate others’ presentations with a frequent “Mhmm.” She quickly transitions from the sweet woman intent on buying her granddaughter a stuffed bear to the chief executive of a large and complex organization.

“Lee Bollinger is a very different kind of president than Mary Sue Coleman,” said Paul Courant, Coleman’s first provost.

Bollinger is a First Amendment scholar and an avid jogger. He is a charismatic public intellectual with flowing hair, and he always had a great line for the newspapers. Although Harvard passed him up, he may be a better fit for Columbia, with its classical curriculum full of books by the ancient thinkers that Bollinger loves to quote.

Coleman on the other hand spent much of her academic career in labs. When she came to the University, her hair was gray and flat. She did not have the same presence Bollinger was purported to have, nor the distinguishing, pin-striped suits. Since that time, however, her hair has turned blonde and her wardrobe more befitting of a well-compensated executive.

In many ways, she is not very professor-like. She is not the type to engage in verbose intellectual pomposity. It’s hard to imagine her staying up all night in college, talking about ideas or politics.

Coleman often seems guarded and unwilling to engage in conversation. She deals with the press more like a politician than an academic. At a recent meeting of the Daily’s news staff, one writer was asked to do an impression of Coleman. The writer pretended to be a reporter asking Coleman about a University bylaw change that would explicitly bar discrimination against members of the transgender community.

“That’s an excellent question,” the writer said, mocking Coleman. “This morning I went for a swim.”

At breakfast on the day I spent with her, I asked Coleman a few easy questions about herself. Favorite book? She told me she doesn’t have one, but that she likes reading and she had been reading about Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution. Favorite movie? She said she doesn’t go to the movies often, but the last one she saw was “Good Night and Good Luck.” I liked that answer. Favorite musician? She said she enjoys it when students from the Music School perform for her, but she also likes bluegrass. Favorite restaurant? She likes to eat at Red Hawk. Favorite U.S. president? John Kennedy. This response intrigued me; there were safer choices. But then she explained that she got to meet Kennedy at the White House because she won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. She said he was young and charismatic.

“She’s incredibly cautious,” said Charles Eisendrath, who runs the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program for mid-career journalists at the University and who facilitated Coleman’s relationship with Mike Wallace. He said she always comes prepared, having done her homework and having been briefed. Sometimes this prudence can drive a college newspaper editor crazy.

The most common criticisms of Coleman that I’ve heard are that she’s too invisible on campus, around the state and around the country. And partly because she is not always out front, she has not articulated a clear vision for the University.

What are her grand plans, other than maintaining academic excellence? Whereas Bollinger focused on science and the arts and developed a master plan for the University’s architecture, and his predecessor, James Duderstadt, worked to globalize the University and increase diversity, so far I’ve had trouble running into someone who could design a bumper sticker that says where Mary Sue Coleman wants to take the University.

I asked Coleman what her vision for the University is.

“Michigan has defined – what a great public research university should be,” she said. She discussed combining research and undergraduate education, a changing world and the importance of staying at the forefront of technological changes. And, as usual, she spouted out a number of exciting initiatives.

Lisa Rudgers, the vice president for communications who helped Coleman learn her way around the University and has the job of helping her express her message, had a different response when asked about Coleman’s vision.

“I think her vision is in her actions. She is creating forward momentum for the University. She will not let it stand still.”

Rudgers discussed what she referred to as the “student-centeredness” of Coleman’s presidency. Under Coleman’s leadership, the University began offering additional financial aid through its M-PACT program, renovated the Trotter House and announced plans to build North Quad, an innovative residence hall and academic building that will combine residential life with academic life.

Every time I asked someone what Coleman’s vision is, I got different responses, often in the form of a long list of initiatives.

Not only is it unclear what her presidency stands for, but some observers do not think she has answered the initial question: Who is she?

Walking around the Union one night, it was hard to find students who could talk for very long about Coleman. Engineering sophomore Depal Patel: “I don’t really know too much about her.” LSA sophomore Anup Shah: “I don’t think people really know much about her.”

The students I talked with all seemed to think she’s doing a decent job as president _” they didn’t have any complaints _” but they didn’t have much to base that assessment on.

In large part, this attitude is the result of how Coleman’s job has evolved. University presidents around the country have found themselves more detached from student and academic life as universities have grown and raising money has become an increasingly important part of their jobs. There is an underlying sense on campus, however, that Coleman is less prominent than other presidents facing the same pressures.

“Mary Sue doesn’t make trouble unless she needs to make trouble,” Courant told me in an interview in his Lorch Hall office last month.

He’s right. She picks her battles carefully. Sometimes, though, it feels as if she goes out of her way to avoid trouble.

The state of Michigan has some of the most restrictive regulations in the nation regarding embryonic stem-cell research. Those restrictions have begun to worry University officials. One leading expert in the field, Michael Clarke, already left for Stanford University, partly because California’s laws are more lenient. The University also almost lost another prominent stem-cell researcher, Sean Morrison, but he eventually decided to stay after being offered a new lab in LSI with a robust funding stream.

State legislation to change these laws has stalled in the Legislature, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm won’t even speak out in favor of it. Kelch, the University’s vice president for medical affairs, made a strong statement against the state’s restrictions. He said it’s inconsistent for the state to try to be a leader in the life sciences while such stringent restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research are on the books.

This issue seemed like a perfect one for Coleman to address publicly. Her own expertise as a distinguished biochemist would have given her additional authority on the issue.

But Coleman would not go as far as Kelch. In a September interview with the Daily, Coleman said she supports both embryonic and adult stem-cell research, but said her role should be to educate the public. She wouldn’t say she agrees wholeheartedly with Kelch, let alone make her own statement, and she wouldn’t say the governor is wrong not to pursue this issue, even though it’s clear Coleman feels strongly about the topic.

Coleman probably made a tactical decision to try to work behind the scenes to change state law. But if she is unwilling to be vocal about issues in which she has expertise and that directly affect her University, let alone the well-being of millions of people around the country, how is she going to make a name for herself?

In a spring survey of instructors, Coleman received a 3.72 out of 5 for inspiring confidence in her overall leadership. By comparison, she received a 4.1 for her fundraising efforts.

When asked if Coleman is less visible than some of her predecessors, Regent Maynard replied, “The East Coast and the West Coast always get more attention than the Midwest.”

I asked Charles Vest, the former president of MIT who rose to the position of provost at the University of Michigan, how Coleman is perceived around the country and if is she is as well known nationwide as her predecessors at Michigan.

“Michigan has had a long succession of outstanding men and women as its presidents, and each, including President Coleman, has been well recognized around the country,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Of course she is well recognized – She’s worked at five universities across the country. But Vest’s statement is a far cry from saying Coleman has an excellent national reputation that rivals her predecessors’.

Information Prof. Robert Frost, the poet’s great-grandson, countered criticism that she is too reserved and not well known around campus and around the country.

“As is her style, when given a choice between being out there and saying a lot of stuff and not being out there and doing a lot of stuff, she’s generally better at the latter,” he said.

Besides, while Bollinger may have been a more exciting president than Coleman, a number of people referred to him as a “pseudointellectual.” I got the impression that if he had quoted a Robert Frost poem one more time, people would have developed vision problems from rolling their eyes so much.

Bruno Giordani, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the executive arm of central faculty governance at the University, said Coleman strikes a balance between the meek presidents no one ever sees and the wild presidents who are constantly getting themselves into trouble.

“I don’t find her being particularly protective or anything or reserved,” he told me.

And she does often debate and argue with faculty members at SACUA meetings, which are open to the public. Giordani noted that after Coleman’s State of the University address this year, she did not leave until she had answered all the questions faculty members had for her.

Maynard is right that a president in the Midwest is going to have a more difficult time getting into the national press than an Ivy League president, but she also described a woman who thinks before she leaps.

“She doesn’t shoot from the hip,” Maynard told me. After noting that her own husband is an attorney, Maynard said that as a lawyer, Bollinger tended to be more verbal than Coleman.

“They love to play around with English and how it sounds,” Maynard said. She said scientists look at facts, and that once Coleman makes a decision, she does not back away from it.

Rudgers described Coleman as a president who is a public relations department’s dream come true: “She’s very rational, and she’s very practical, and she has a lot of good common sense.”

Eisendrath, who probably has more connections with members of the national media than anyone else at the University, said Coleman does well with the New York crowd and alums on the East Coast.

Eisendrath added that by not constantly sharing her opinions, Coleman lets the faculty stand for something _” a point with which Chamberlin, the political science professor, agreed. Chamberlin said he wouldn’t always want the president to volunteer her opinion.

“I think there are some times when the institution as an institution needs to take a stand,” Chamberlin said, citing affirmative action as an example. But he added that it is more important for debate to take place at the University. He said having the president “declaring that they have discovered the right answer” can stifle debate. He described a tension between leaders speaking out when it is necessary and restraining themselves at other times because presidents shouldn’t “foreclose some of those debates.” His view is that professors and students should seek out answers to important questions.

Coleman understands this tradeoff. In her address to the Senate Assembly in September, she quoted former University President Alexander Ruthven, who “wrote in his memoirs that it was the president’s job to make speeches _” ‘to say something,’ he observed, ‘that deans and professors can criticize.’ ”

While Coleman does not have a provocative comment to go along with every issue she faces, she becomes quite passionate about two issues in particular: health care and the value of public higher education.

Her public statements advocating universal health care can be quite powerful. In 2004, she gave an address calling for universal health coverage by 2010 after helping write an Institute of Medicine report about the topic.

“After three years of intensive and wide-ranging study of the consequences of uninsurance, this committee has concluded that small steps are inadequate,” she said. “This is the reason we are taking the bold step of issuing an unequivocal call for universal coverage.”

She added that there is no excuse for delay and pointed out a number of consequences of uninsurance, including the harm it does to families and to the nation’s economy.

Coleman has also become increasingly vocal about her displeasure with Lansing politicians for cutting higher education funding. While in her office, I pointed to a picture of Coleman and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, both wearing sunglasses.

Coleman walks a political tightrope when it comes to the governor, but on that day, she said, “I wish she were more supportive of the universities.”

In 2003, as the University began to feel the full the effects of state budget cuts, Coleman gave $500,000 of her and her husband’s own money to the University. That money went to a number of uses, including scholarships and renovations to Trotter House and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

In March, Coleman complained to the Daily that “higher education has been used to balance the books of the state.”

It would be easy to dismiss these strong statements as self-serving calls for more funding, but I don’t buy that. If Coleman leaves for a private university at some point, I’d take my statements back, but for now it seems she is genuinely committed to high-quality public higher education. She says it is “a great statement of democracy in this country” that the American people have been willing to support public universities that rival private universities, calling these public universities “one of the signal achievements of a great democracy.” That, she says, is why she is so concerned about the recent funding decreases.

She never fails to point out the good that higher education has done for millions of Americans, especially the students who grew up “of modest means,” as Coleman likes to say, but eventually became prosperous because of their college education.

While Coleman can be selectively outspoken, she still faces criticism that she doesn’t have a clear vision for the University. The themes of her Senate Assembly address were academic excellence, collaboration, engagement and accessibility – consistent with what she said at the Union the year before, but hardly groundbreaking.

Regent Andrea Fischer Newman dismissed criticism that Coleman does not have a vision for the University. She pointed out that Coleman had to spend a great deal of time on initiatives Bollinger did not have time to finish, such as LSI.

Eisendrath, who has been at Michigan through four presidencies – Harold Shapiro, Duderstadt, Bollinger and Coleman – concurred, saying Coleman doesn’t have any “grand plans to lead a charge somewhere,” but that between Bollinger and Duderstadt, who was constantly thinking about the future, the regents had had enough visions and wanted to get some basics done.

But universities are full of intellectuals who think big and want leadership. During this era of declining state support, a strong leader is necessary to maintain academic quality despite the funding dropoff.

In a chapter on presidential leadership from Duderstadt’s forthcoming book, he writes, “Michigan embraces bold visions, and without these, effective leadership is simply impossible.”

If Coleman becomes merely an initiative president – and she’s launched a number of good ones – she will be remembered as the University’s first female president, not a bold leader. Coleman is clearly a skilled manager – the best Eisendrath said he’s seen so far in a University President.

“She’s a born manager,” he said.

Eisendrath, however, is wrong – along with Rudgers, the regents I talked to and even Coleman herself. They’re not wrong about her managerial skills or even which issues she thinks are important. They’re wrong when they try to describe her vision for the University. And everyone who says she doesn’t have any vision is wrong as well.

Whether anyone – including Coleman – realizes it or not, she does have a vision. She just hasn’t articulated it very well. Maybe that’s because her schedule is so packed she hasn’t had a chance to take a step back and realize that all her initiatives are coherent.

If I were to describe the vision of her presidency, I would label her the anti-wall president. Coleman doesn’t believe in walls unless they are absolutely necessary.

The themes of her State of the University address in September were academic excellence, collaboration, engagement and accessibility. Those goals are all closely related because to achieve them all, she will need to tear down artificial barriers that exist either inside the University or between the University and the rest of the world.

Aside from academic excellence, which is pretty self-explanatory, her speech had three other themes:

Collaboration. She wants more communication between experts with different backgrounds.

“The single laboratory and the solitary scholar are often supplemented by collaborative endeavors. Academic discoveries will emerge from the intersection of our disciplines and will be more intertwined with the world we inhabit and serve,” she said in her 2004 address at the Union.

Hence the interdisciplinary taskforce, which provides funding for significantly more team teaching. It looks for ways to better share information between faculty, and it takes a look at budgetary changes that can be made to increase flexibility in funding team teaching and interdisciplinary programs, including improving connections between undergraduate and graduate programs.

North Quad, which will combine academics with residential life, is another example of Coleman’s efforts to make the University more seamless.

Engagement. Coleman wants the University to be relevant to the rest of society. As she said in her September speech, that is why she has focused on building partnerships with China. It is also one of the reasons she thinks the Dearborn and Flint campuses are so important – they further connect the University to the state and directly help its residents.

She discussed the Michigan in Washington program and the University’s new Detroit Center in her September address, both of which expand the University’s presence geographically. The University has also launched a Spanish version of its website.

Another major focus of her administration has been technology transfer, the process of moving ideas from the University to the private sector – an idea originally floated by the University’s first president, Henry Tappan, who, in the mid-19th century, promoted the idea that the University’s knowledge should serve society.

Then there’s the Google project to digitize the University’s entire library collection and put it online, a controversial idea Coleman has been eager to defend publicly – in part by writing an opinion piece in The Washington Post – possibly because one of Google’s founders is an alum. She has grounded her support of the project in her belief that the University’s knowledge should be available to the public.

Accessibility. Coleman has worked hard to increase the economic and racial diversity on campus through financial aid and her support of affirmative action. She has also driven around the state to tell students from underrepresented backgrounds that they are welcome and wanted at the University. She believes the University should be open to anyone who works hard enough to get in, not just to those who can afford the high tuition price.

As Chamberlin pointed out, these areas are all historic strengths for the University, not wild pet ideas that Coleman has. And they all revolve around the dissemination of knowledge and information and an emphasis on openness and transparency.

Courant gave me his view of the Harvard admissions process. He said historically, the admissions office has asked the question: “Is this a Harvard man?” when evaluating applicants. That strategy historically led to a homogenous and elite student body.

One hundred years ago, elite university presidents tried to mold young minds and teach valuable moral lessons to the nation’s future leaders. The system was more aristocratic and less meritocratic than it is now.

I asked Coleman about that era. She said that during that time, it was important for university presidents to speak about the great moral issues of the day. But the G.I. Bill led to a more diverse student body and larger universities that are more representative of the country and the states in which they are situated, she told me. Universities are more complicated now, and the job of a university president has grown.

As a scientist and a woman, Mary Sue Coleman represents the increasing diversity on college campuses. Regent Maynard told me it is important for the University to avoid being an ivory tower. Instead, it should be integrated into the world around it. Coleman not only represents the change in universities and in university presidents that took place in the 20th century, but, as Maynard points out, the idea that the University should not be walled off from the world.

“She is hopelessly Midwestern,” Charles Eisendrath said. He meant that as a compliment. He said he likes the Iowa part of her and doesn’t like it when the University pretends to be Harvard.

It is not Harvard, it will never be Harvard and it shouldn’t try to be Harvard. Its mission is far broader than Harvard’s. The University has a tradition of academic excellence, but it also has a tradition of service to the people of Michigan and to society at large. Unlike many Ivy League schools, there is no gate surrounding our campus.

Because she recognizes that, Mary Sue Coleman may be the quintessential University of Michigan president.