Women at the Helm of Michigan Universities Speak About Success

Women at the Helm of Michigan Universities Speak About Success
April 28, 2012/Lansing State Journal

By Cassandra Spratling


Michigan is ahead of the curve in terms of having women at the helm of its major universities.

Eastern Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan all have female presidents.

“That’s still pretty much unusual historically and even currently across the country,” says Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

Nationally, university presidents continue to be predominantly male, according to a report the American Council on Education released earlier this year. But women are making inroads. The report shows that the percentage of female-headed public and private colleges and universities rose from 23 percent to 26.4 percent from 2006 to 2011.

The women leading public universities in Michigan are Susan Martin at Eastern Michigan University, Lou Anna K. Simon at Michigan State University and Mary Sue Coleman at the University of Michigan.

“They’re all absolutely true leaders in every respect not just locally, but on the national scene they’re considered the cream of the cream,” Boulus says. “It’s groundbreaking, really. They provide great role models for women in general.”

Each president attributes her success to being prepared, taking advantage of opportunities, being eager to learn along the way and having a supportive team.

Never let gender limit your options, they all say.

Lou Anna K. Simon

For Lou Anna K. Simon, 65, the key to success and happiness in any role isn’t about titles, power or accolades. It’s much simpler, she says. It’s really about being true to yourself and your values.

“You have to have a moral and ethical gyroscope set in the right direction, a direction that says what you’re all about,” says Simon, who became president of Michigan State University in 2005, the first woman to take charge of the 48,000-student campus in East Lansing.

“Women and people of color for whom there are not many role models in some positions, you have to be comfortable in your skin. You have to be comfortable with who you are and what you’re about. Your capacity can’t be defined or limited by gender or race.”

Simon says she began to learn that lesson as a child growing up in a series of small towns south of Terre Haute, Ind. She was raised by both her parents and maternal grandparents. They nurtured her natural curiosity, spirit of adventure and competitiveness.

She was the first in her family to go to college.

“There was just a sense that there were no barriers, nothing saying because you’re a young girl, you can’t do,” she says. “I played sports at an early age and almost always with boys, and in the early years we sort of had to make our own games because there were no organized sports for children where I grew up.”

In high school, she earned a scholarship to any university of her choice and she chose Indiana State just because it was closest to home.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in math in 1969 and a master’s degree in student personnel and counseling a year later, she went to Michigan State University to pursue her doctorate degree in higher education and has been there ever since. It’s where she met her husband, Roy Simon, the director of telecommunications and transportation at MSU. The couple, who have no children, have been married for 40 years.

“I’m not sure I saw myself as a president until I became one,” she says. “I was fortunate to be able to sit down with lots of people and ask questions and try to learn and take pieces of what they said. It’s important to look for support and sponsorship from a variety of people.”

Her advice to those who want to become leaders? Don’t wait on the title to start acting like one.

“Recognize that it’s possible to lead without having a title,” she says. “If you’re only a leader because you have the title, it may become harder to be a leader.”

Despite a rigorous, round-the-clock schedule, Simon finds time to enjoy her favorite pastimes — walking around the campus, attending sports and performing arts events on campus and reading. “I try to read every night before I go to bed, mostly murder mysteries by women authors.”

She credits her parents and grandparents’ “homespun common sense and wisdom” for preparing her to be a leader. “My parents and grandparents were very clear that you shouldn’t let others define your aspirations,” she says.

Their message is worthy of anyone seeking success today, she says. “Set your goals very high and really stretch. It’s OK if you don’t make it, as long as you know you tried your best.”

Additional Facts

Mary Sue Coleman 

She’s arguably one of Michigan’s most important leaders, and to hear Mary Sue Coleman tell it, getting there was a matter of being prepared when opportunity arose. She marks her 10th year as president of the University of Michigan this year. She’s the first woman to hold the post and, having come from leading the University of Iowa for seven years, she’s also the first woman to lead two Big Ten schools. But gender’s never been an issue for her, she said from the 40,365-student Ann Arbor campus. 

“You don’t achieve this kind of position unless you’re extremely well-prepared,” Coleman, 68, says. “I’ve always found that people evaluated me on what I accomplished ... as a good scientist and as a good leader.” 

That preparation began while she was growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was a fierce, frequent competitor in science fairs and won a coveted Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition her senior year in high school. She earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina. And she never envisioned life as an administrator:“I always tell students, don’t think you can cement your career early, because you can’t. Opportunities will arise that will be intriguing. Keep your mind open.”

Posted on Monday, April 30, 2012 (Archive on Monday, January 01, 0001)
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