In Decade of Challenges and Triumphs, Mary Sue Coleman Transforms University of Michigan

In Decade of Challenges and Triumphs, Mary Sue Coleman Transforms University of Michigan
Detroit Free Press/September 4, 2012

Standing behind a podium, dressed in her formal academic gown, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman broke into a smile last week as her speech in front of entering freshmen deviated a bit from a stock welcome-to-campus-you're-going-to-do-great-things pep talk.

She told the students to drop by her house.

"Yes, I really do live there, no matter what you've heard," she said to laughter. "Please come by (to an open house)."

Coleman, 68, has been living in the large house in the center of campus ever since she stepped foot on the Ann Arbor campus a decade ago to take over running one of the nation's premier universities.

In that decade, she has dealt with financial turmoil, NCAA investigations and an aging campus.

"Defining moments are hard because there are so many -- the end of the largest fund-raising campaign in (U-M's) history, all the new buildings, remodeled buildings, enhanced academics, awards and growth at the university," said longtime U-M Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, R-Ann Arbor.

"Her entire tenure is a defining moment," Newman continued. "The university has grown and prospered under her presidency."

Coleman's not done, at least for a couple more years. She told some members of Board of Regents that she plans to retire when her contract expires in July 2014, three regents told the Free Press.

Embracing a challenge
When Coleman was publicly introduced as the 13th U-M president, she showed up to the Board of Regents meeting with an oven mitt in the shape of a Michigan map and a bottle of Vernors. She used the mitt to point out Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn -- the locations of U-M's campuses.

That meeting in May 2002 was the end of a lengthy search process by the regents to replace Lee Bollinger, who left U-M to become president of Columbia University.

"She was amazing in her interview," Newman said. "She was fully prepared, with a deep understanding of the university, the challenges that lay ahead, the governance structure and the breadth and depth of the institution. She immediately set herself apart from the others we had interviewed."

Current board Chairman Laurence Deitch, D-Bloomfield Hills, also was chairman when Coleman was hired. He, too, was impressed with the then-president of the University of Iowa.

"I was most impressed by her experience, energy, focus, grasp of detail and enthusiasm."

Coleman hit campus at a turbulent time. U-M booster Ed Martin had just pleaded guilty to a money-laundering scheme involving U-M athletes and the NCAA was breathing down Michigan's neck. Admission policies were being challenged in front of the Supreme Court. But Coleman knew she wanted to be there.

"U-M is such a dominant force in higher education. It was an opportunity to lead and to be on a stage that allowed you to do that. I had never dreamed I would become the president of the University of Michigan.

"I knew it would be challenging."

Investing in campus
As Coleman took control in Ann Arbor, Michigan's economy cratered, drying up state aid to U-M and other state universities. That meant hundreds of millions of dollars had to be cut out of U-M's budget.

"We had to plan, plan, plan," Coleman said. "We looked at every nook and cranny of the budget."

At the same time, Coleman worked to grow the university -- investing in more faculty and upgrades to campus buildings. In one of the more dramatic moves, she stepped up to purchase at a bargain price what became the North Campus Research Complex when Pfizer closed its massive Ann Arbor facilities.

She also drove the move to increase the commercialization of technology being developed by U-M professors.

John Lin, a 2010 graduate and an incoming law student at U-M's Law School, said that has been Coleman's greatest success.

"Her emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation and interdisciplinary studies has helped create new jobs and businesses for the region/state," he said. "The university is no longer just about education. Its mission now includes transferring what happens at the university for the benefit of the region -- and that's a good thing."

She has also been in demand. She serves as the chairwoman of the Association of American Universities. Time magazine named her one of the 10 best college presidents in the country. President Barack Obama selected her as one of six university presidents to launch the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.

Coleman has her share of detractors -- some unhappy with her role in hiring former head football coach Rich Rodriguez; others blame her for an aggressive trespass policy that banned some people from campus.

Last school year, she also irritated people with her public stance against the possible unionization of graduate student research assistants. It led to a public spat between her and the board.

"I think the GSRA unionization issue this past year was one of the toughest (of her career)," Newman said. "A majority of the board made a decision that she and the faculty disagreed with. I think it's the first time I can recall a board directly overruling a president.

"Usually, if there is disagreement, it is discussed and worked through. That wasn't the case here. I think this was hard on everyone, but particularly hard on her."

Working with others
Coleman's office inside U-M's administration building is filled with the mementos of a decade in charge. There's a picture of her with Obama on U-M's campus. Three footballs from last fall's season -- the night game with Notre Dame, the win over Ohio State and the win in the Sugar Bowl -- are displayed on top of a large bookcase.

Those who have worked with her said she does a lot of listening in there, something she said is on purpose:

"I benefit from the wisdom (of staff) every day. I want to make sure I hear all the arguments for and against an issue. I want (the staff) to take their best shots."

That's true, Deitch said.

"President Coleman is always pleasant and consultative. At the same time, she is tough and focused. When she makes up her mind on something, she is relentless until she achieves her objective."

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com

Posted on Tuesday, September 04, 2012 (Archive on Monday, January 01, 0001)
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