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Mary Sue Coleman, the advocate

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. 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.

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.

Though there will be challenges, Coleman said she relishes the opportunity to tackle them head on.

“You’re always going to have new challenges,” Coleman said. “That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about being in a university community, especially at a place like Michigan.”

With the foundation Coleman's laid, it's up to another advocate to lay down the bricks.