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The Statement

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Mary Sue Coleman, the advocate

By Joseph Lichterman, Editor in Chief
Published September 11, 2012

Its initial co-directors left after Bollinger, and Coleman – a biochemist by trade – was forced to ensure that the LSI, which is aimed at collaborative research in the various life science disciplines, would be completed successfully.

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

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But the struggles over the University’s budget and its annual state funding have been, arguably, the most significant battle fought by Coleman, the board and other administrators as they confront what has become an existential threat to the University’s status as an elite public university.

Managing the University

As a leader, Coleman affords those who work for her the independence to solve problems. Both University Provost Phil Hanlon, and former provost Paul Courant, who is now the University’s Dean of Libraries, agree that Coleman allows great latitude, but is also very accessible to discuss any issues.

“I always had, as provost, extremely good access to her when I needed it,” Courant said. “She pays attention to things. She compliments you when you do things well, she lets you know if she doesn’t think you’re doing things well. And she’s very much of the model of: ‘When in doubt, call.’ ”

Coleman meets weekly with the University’s executive officers to discuss the issues facing the University, and she tries to hear as many opinions as possible before making a decision.

“In my leadership style, I found that putting issues on the table and making people feel comfortable, whether they agree or disagree, and to state their case and to make their argument, that we get better decisions in the end,” Coleman said.

But, at the end of the day, when she makes up her mind about something, she’s unlikely to reconsider, no matter how popular or unpopular a decision may be.

“She’s not someone who’s going to waffle on decisions she’s made,” Hanlon said.

And under her management, the University has been forced to make a series of tough choices.

The University has cut $235 million in costs from the general fund budget over the past decade, and it expects to eliminate another $120 million by 2017, Hanlon said, adding that most of the cuts have been kept away from the academic enterprises.

The savings have been widely publicized from changing employee benefits to the consolidation of information technologies.

“We are so much more lean and efficient than we were 10 years ago,” Hanlon said.

Valued at $7.8 billion as of June 30, 2011, the University’s endowment has more than doubled under the management of Coleman’s financial team. Its annual payout has also increased.

But as efficiency has improved over the past decade, increased tuition rates have been a part of the budgetary solution, despite the fact that the amount of financial aid the University awards has increased.

The cost of attendance at the University has continually grown. In fall 2002, it cost an in-state LSA freshman approximately $7,300 for a full year’s tuition. Now, it costs an LSA freshman from Michigan approximately $12,800 to attend to the University. And it’s even more expensive for out-of-state and international students.

Coleman has previously expressed her desire to see more non-resident students attend the University.

“We have capacity, and these students come paying the full freight,” Coleman said at the Mackinac Policy Conference in May. “They actually add tremendously to the economy of the state of Michigan.”

But since the cost of attending the University has increased, many are worried that the culture of the institution, with more higher-income and out-of-state students, is changing.

“The out-of-state price has gotten so high that those kids generally come from families that are generally pretty affluent,” Deitch said.

What’s next?

The University is planning to launch its next capital campaign late next year and May said financial aid will be one of its several major focuses. More than $500 million was raised in private support in the last campaign and May said the University is hoping to top that this time around.

At this early stage, May said programs in entrepreneurship and sustainability, areas Coleman has prioritized, are also emerging as potential major themes of the upcoming fundraising push.

But the specter of the end of Coleman’s presidency is hanging over the planning process. Her contract expires in 2014, and she said she doesn’t plan on staying on longer.

“It is my expectation that I will go on and do something differently in two years,” she said.

Her dozen years at the University’s helm will make her the longest tenured president in nearly 40 years.

And as the University prepares for a presidential transition, it’ll be up to that person, whoever they may be, to set the University’s priorities for the coming years.

The budgetary challenges Coleman has dealt with show no signs of abating and the next president will have to find a way to generate revenue.