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Mary Sue Coleman, the advocate

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Joseph Lichterman, Editor in Chief
Published September 11, 2012

The busiest woman on campus knows the importance of face time. Strolling around campus, she makes a point of engaging with the students she sees.

Are you satisfied with the way Mary Sue Coleman has been running the University?

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And that's also why every year she opens her doors to students. Walk down to 815 South University Ave. tomorrow and see for yourself for her annual Open House, but be prepared to wait in line. Every student gets their moment. Nervous freshman or class president, you'll get the same rapt attention, the same genuine interest.

For Mary Sue Coleman, the University's first female president, face time matters. It's her bread and butter.

It doesn't matter if she’s talking to students or a prospective million-dollar donor. Somehow she manages to charm everyone.

“When Mary Sue builds relationships, they’re just not glad-handing. They’re really genuine relationships,” said Jerry May, the University’s vice president for development.

Over the past decade, she’s used that charm to become the University’s best advocate, promoting the University and what it stands for.

This fall is Coleman’s tenth at the University. During her tenure, the University has faced well-documented budget challenges — last year, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the University received $166 million less than it did a decade ago from the state.

But Coleman has remained a tireless cheerleader for the institution, having time and again stressed the gravity of the funding difficulties facing the University to nearly anyone who’s willing to listen.

Her insistence has paid off with University donors. In fact, fundraising may be the one area where Coleman has had the greatest individual impact.

May has worked in development for more than 30 years and says, quite sincerely, that Coleman has been one of the most “effective presidents in the country, by far, in fundraising.”

Because the connections Coleman makes with donors are so genuine, they’re more willing to donate to the University, sources close to her say.

“She just makes every donor feel special and makes them feel important to the future of the University,” said Rich Rogel, a University supporter who has made multi-million dollar donations to the University and who chaired the Michigan Difference campaign – the high-profile fundraising effort that ran from 2004 to 2008 and raised $3.2 billion for the University.

As a result of the Michigan Difference campaign, more than 150 named professorships were created, $550 million in financial aid was donated and more than $490 million for new and upgraded facilities was also contributed, including now-iconic buildings like Ross School of Business and Weill Hall.

Coleman delivered a significant number of the pitches to donors, saying in an interview last week that she “genuinely enjoys” fundraising because it ensures that the University remains successful.

“I love doing it because I’m proud of what we do at the University and I know that this kind of funding is critical for the future,” Coleman said. “It’s a big part of my job.”

While some may feel uncomfortable asking for such large sums of money, Coleman says she relishes making pitches to donors. She said development work is a direct way for her to help the University.

“I’m not bashful,” Coleman said, laughing.

Nor does she go unrewarded for her efforts. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, she made more than $845,000 in 2011, making her the fifth highest-paid public-college president in the country.

A track record

Before she arrived at the University in 2002, Coleman had already built a reputation as an able university leader.

During her seven years as president of the University of Iowa, annual fundraising at Iowa climbed from $82 million to $172 million, while research funding nearly doubled to $300 million.

The University’s Board of Regents, who led the search for a new president, was looking for someone with a proven track record of leading a large public research university, and Coleman was the obvious choice, Regent Laurence Deitch (D–Bingham Farms), who chaired the search committee, said.

“We wanted someone, at that time, who was a sitting president,” Deitch said, adding that all the candidates the University considered were current presidents at other institutions.

As Coleman took office, she managed to successfully navigate several initial controversies. The University successfully defended its affirmative action policies before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, but then in 2006 Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment banning the practice.

The Athletic Department was also facing issues stemming from the Ed Martin booster scandal that embroiled the men’s basketball program when Coleman first arrived.

And the Life Sciences Institute, which was the pet project of Lee Bollinger, Coleman’s predecessor, was also in flux.


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