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U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, Ann Arbor

The Coleman Era

She steadied a university in turmoil--only to see conflict boil up in her final year.

by Eve Silberman

From the June, 2014 issue

A "Farewell Mary Sue" party in mid-March pulled out all the stops. Jeff Daniels introduced President Coleman to the crowd at the Michigan Union--faculty, staff, regents, and a lot of students. Regent Andrea Fischer Newman told an enthusiastic audience, "Everybody loves our president." A ten-minute film tribute showed fans at a football game shouting, "Mary Sue! Mary Sue!" Obviously moved, Coleman, a small, slight woman who speaks with quiet authority, told the gathering, "I've enjoyed every moment of being 'Thirteen.'"

Coleman, seventy, didn't dwell on the rough patches in her twelve years as U-M's thirteenth president. Hired after the abrupt departure of Lee Bollinger, just as the Fab Five basketball scandal was breaking, she inherited an institution whose self-confidence--rarely in short supply--had been shaken. She's since faced challenges ranging from a state constitutional amendment banning affirmative action to a federal investigation of the university's response to sexual assaults to a faculty uprising over staff cuts and administrative pay.

Coleman's greatest accomplishment is keeping the university solvent and prestigious as state appropriations plunged alarmingly during the Great Recession (they now make up less than 20 percent of the general fund). She's proven herself an exceptionally gifted fundraiser and a disciplined administrator. In a January 2012 letter to President Obama, she pointed out that Michigan had cut its annual operating costs by $235 million over eight years. In the same period, however, the U-M increased in-state tuition by 54 percent--and just a few weeks later, Obama gave a speech in Ann Arbor that criticized schools for raising tuition.

History prof Dario Gaggio, a leader in the faculty rebellion, says for years he and others regarded Coleman as a "middle-of-the-road" figure--not dynamic but not disliked. Now, he says, "A lot of faculty [are] looking twice at what kind of legacy she leaves."

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Coleman's appointment in the spring of 2002 surprised many. Michigan's last three presidents--Bollinger, Jim Duderstadt, and Harold Shapiro--were internal hires. The loss of the charismatic Bollinger to Columbia had been painful,

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and most people had expected interim president Joe White, who had run the business school, to get the top job.

But the regents were impressed with Coleman, who had doubled fundraising in her seven years as president at the University of Iowa. A biochemist by training, she was also well prepared to help Michigan go after growing federal research spending.

Bollinger's unhappiness with his pay was a factor in his departure. The regents bumped the president's salary by 40 percent, to $475,000, when they hired Coleman. Nationwide, top universities were offering their executive officers much more than in the past, on the theory that they were underpaid compared to counterparts in the corporate sector.

She arrived during a very bad decade for Michigan.

People "tend to forget," says former LSA dean Terry McDonald, that Michigan suffered not one but two recessions in the 2000s. From 2002 to 2012, the U-M's base state appropriation plunged 26 percent, from $416 million to $308 million, and that's without adjusting for inflation. About 70 percent of the general fund now comes from tuition, increasingly generated by out-of-state students who pay more than $50,000 a year. State legislators might grumble about the disappointed Michigan residents who don't get in, but they aren't appropriating more money to pay U-M's bills.

Coleman quickly showed her stuff as a fundraiser. She's been able to keep longtime donors like Steve Ross and Al Taubman on board. Taubman, whose past gifts are already memorialized in the Taubman Health Sciences Library, the A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center, and the Taubman College of Architecture, recently plunked down another $56 million for naming rights to the Biomedical Research Building.

The U-M business school was already named for Ross when he made another $100 million pledge last year. Ross also promised the same amount to the athletic department, making him the largest single donor in U-M history. Coleman also signed up newly generous alums like Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway investment firm. Munger gave $100 million for an eight-story graduate dorm now rising at the corner of Division and Madison.

When I asked people what makes Coleman so good at fundraising, the answers included "she's so warm," "she's a very good listener," and "she cares deeply about the university--and she makes other people care." (A spokesman said Coleman was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.) But others question whether even the best fundraiser can always align the priorities of the university and its donors. "Private donors give money to what they want, not what the university needs," one former U-M administrator says.

Coleman's supporters, though, say she's good at expanding donors' horizons beyond buildings named after them. Regent Julia Darrow--who gives Coleman an A plus for her work here--had ace development officer Judy Malcolm call me to explain.

"The fact is donors have always supported a wide range of activities," Malcolm emphasizes. "Mary Sue is very good at connecting donors to ... their passions," from funding scholarships to fighting diabetes. Political science prof Mika LaVaque-Manty was surprised one homecoming weekend to be invited to speak to a small group that included big-time donors Ross and Penny Stamps (the art school is named after her). Coleman wanted him to talk about how he lets students watch his lectures online instead of requiring them to attend in person--a growing trend on campuses. "They were very receptive and very interested," he reports.

Under Coleman, the four-year "Michigan Difference" campaign brought in $3.2 billion, at the time the most any public university had raised. U-M's newest campaign was launched in November; called "Victors for Michigan," it's seeking $4 billion in gifts.

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When Time magazine selected Coleman as one of the ten best college presidents, in 2009, it stressed her spectacular fundraising. The fruits of the university's success in garnering donations are visible everywhere on campus, from engineering buildings on North Campus to Mott Children's Hospital and the luxury boxes at Michigan Stadium. Though traditionalists were outraged at the thought of dividing the athletic shrine into first-class and coach sections, former athletic director Bill Martin recalls Coleman's concern was whether it was a wise investment. Once she was convinced, he adds, she backed it wholeheartedly, eventually winning the regents' approval on a split vote. Similarly, she and the board stretched to snap up the former Pfizer property, now the North Campus Research Complex. "A campus of that scope and quality simply could not be replicated for the price which the university paid," emails regent Larry Deitch. "You need great lab space to do meaningful scientific research."

Supporters emphasize other accomplishments. "She has not been content to sit and just let Michigan be great," says Tiya Miles, chair of the Afroamerican and African Studies department. "She had been driven to make this place even better." Miles singles out Coleman's support of a new African Studies Center that brings African scholars to U-M and offers support for students who want to volunteer or do research in Africa. It's one of several global initiatives she's started, including programs in India and China.

Coleman doesn't play up her status as the U-M's first female president. But longtime women's studies prof Abigail Stewart was grateful when Coleman came to the rescue of a program that recruits and help retain women faculty in science and engineering. When its five-year National Science Foundation grant ran out, Coleman provided university funding to continue it.

A special "tribute" issue of the University Record noted that funded research rose 77 percent under Coleman. One senior scientist says that's true, but questions whether the president deserves credit, pointing out the grants are won by researchers, not administrators, and that rising federal research spending boosted everyone's take. University spokesperson David Lampe responds that Coleman hired new interdisciplinary faculty, developed the Life Sciences Institute (a Bollinger initiative that at first faltered when he left), and gave research "a tremendous boost" with the acquisition of the Pfizer property.

The Record added that "[m]inority faculty members enjoyed notable growth during her tenure." But since the state's voters ended affirmative action, the number of black undergrads has slipped by one-third, to less than 5 percent of the student body. In a Martin Luther King Day protest, the Black Student Union--echoing demands first made forty years ago--called for "an increase in black representation on this campus equal to 10 percent."

Without affirmative action that's unlikely to happen. When the Record asked Coleman if she has any regrets, she replied, "I wish we had made greater progress in attracting and retaining more underrepresented minority students."

Among the student body at large, Coleman's extremely popular. "She's very visible throughout the university," says 2014 grad Jake Levey. She frequently walks through campus, greeting students, posing for pictures, and asking questions. "Her office understands social media and how to connect to students," Levey notes. He mentions a YouTube video enacting the legend that the president spins the Cube in front of the administration building to start the campus day. Coleman gives the sculpture a hearty shove, nods with satisfaction, and marches briskly out of the frame.

A business major, Levey was thrilled to find himself at a Victors for Michigan campaign dinner chaired by Steve Ross. Inspired, he persuaded the Jewish group Hillel, which co-sponsors the Golden Apple Award for distinguished teaching, to give a Golden Apple to Coleman as well.

She never developed a comparable bond with the faculty. Tiya Miles was invited to dinner at the president's house after she won a MacArthur Fellowship. Otherwise, she emails, "I saw President Coleman in the usual way that most faculty do, I suspect--infrequently and at a handful of major events."

Michigan's academic units enjoy a lot of independence, and many faculty are fine with a hands-off president. But Coleman's drive to cut costs and bring in revenue brought new stresses. As veteran support staff retired, some were replaced by work-study students, who frequently came and went. Meanwhile, deans and department chairs came under pressure to raise more of their own funding.

Yet, at the same time, faculty watched the published salaries of top administrators climbing ever higher, more staffers being hired whose sole job was raising money (Michigan now employs 600 people in its development office), and coaches in "revenue sports" earning seven-figure incomes. Engineering prof Galip Ulsoy, who serves on a committee that tracks faculty compensation, recalls requesting information from the provost's office about long-term trends in "the total university budget and the percentage of that spent on faculty compensation. We were told, 'That's too complicated, and we're not able to provide that to you.'"

In a recent "open letter" the faculty did some comparing of their own ("The Faculty Strikes Back," May). Looking at executives at Michigan and four other large public universities, they concluded that the U-M's leaders earned 27 to 41 percent more--and that's not counting additional pay that totaled $46 million last year. Regents Deitch and Fischer Newman responded that the salaries are appropriate, and top talent doesn't come cheap.

Not every faculty member was outraged. Poli sci prof LaVaque-Manty says that compared with declining public funding "administrative salaries are such a small part" of the university's budget troubles. To historian Gaggio, though, the special treatment demonstrates that Coleman "leaves behind a university that's [more] corporatized than ever, and much less diverse." In mid-May, the Ann Arbor News quoted incoming president Mark Schlissel as saying that while bonuses are often appropriate, he favors publicly reporting all compensation.

A bigger embarrassment came in December, when football player Brendan Gibbons was expelled from the university--four years after he was accused of rape. Gibbons was never criminally charged, but in May the Department of Education revealed that Michigan is one of fifty-six institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal laws governing the handling of rape and harassment complaints. Sharing that list with Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton was no comfort.

Come July, that, too, will be Schlissel's problem. In retirement, Coleman and her husband Ken, a political scientist who's kept a low profile in town, will divide their time between Ann Arbor and Colorado, where they have a grown son and grandchildren. They've bought a condo in Nature Cove, a complex long popular with U-M retirees.

The conflicts that surfaced in Coleman's final year may only demonstrate how tough the job of running a major university has become. Though "Mary Sue" will no longer be living on the Diag, in the long run her popularity with students may well do more to shape her legacy than faculty's recent disenchantment. Students stop being students when they graduate. They become alumni--and potential donors.

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This article has been edited since it appeared in the June 2014 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Mark Schlissel's name has been corrected.    (end of article)

[Originally published in June, 2014.]

 

 
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