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Mary Sue Coleman was pulling out of a parking garage in Denver when she received a call from Regent Mark Bernstein (D), asking her to take over as interim president of the University of Michigan following the firing of former president Mark Schlissel.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Bernstein illustrated this interaction and highlighted Coleman’s willingness to return to the post and fill the gap left by Schlissel.
“(Coleman) said ‘Whatever the University of Michigan needs, I will be there,’” Bernstein said. “Period. No conversation about the details, no conversation about contract terms, no conversation about anything other than ‘How can I be of service to this institution?’”
With University President-elect Santa Ono taking over at the end of the week, Coleman’s time as interim president is drawing to a close nine months after she took office in January. At Coleman’s final regents meeting as the University’s president, the board wished her farewell and thanked Coleman for her valuable contributions to the University.
When Coleman started as interim president, she came at a time of instability on campus, with students, faculty and staff reeling from the investigation into Schlissel’s misconduct. According to Bernstein, tackling that uncertainty and distrust in administration was something Coleman took care of during her term.
“It’s funny how, in the long history of our University, how a short period of time can make or break an institution,” Bernstein said. “And Coleman’s return to the University provided a great deal of stability and confidence among students, faculty and staff that this University was headed in the right direction after a turbulent period of time. And that was an extraordinary gift to our University.”
Regent Sarah Hubbard (R) expressed similar enthusiasm at the beginning of Coleman’s second presidency in an interview with The Daily, citing Coleman’s experience and the ease of her presidential transition.
“It was so refreshing to be able to have somebody like her with such experience … to come in and be able to hit the ground running, no questions asked,” Hubbard said. “She really has been great. And she’s done everything she could and we’re just so grateful that she could come and step in so seamlessly at a time of great need.”
Hubbard also emphasized the role of communication in effective leadership at a higher education institution.
“Communication is key,” Hubbard said. “(Coleman was) very, very good at knowing when she needed to share information and that’s an important lesson for all presidents, all leaders of organizations; to really keep an open door communicating with your peers and your leadership.”
Coleman’s reputation with the student body has been quite positive. LSA senior Kareem Rifai, Central Student Government spokesman, said CSG appreciated how involved Coleman was with their organization.
“I know that the president and vice president (of CSG) have really appreciated her engagement, even though she is self-aware that she’s an interim, that she’s leaving before the issues are overcome,” Rifai said. “She was still really engaging and really dedicated to making sure that students’ needs were being met.”
Rifai also provided a statement on behalf of the CSG president and the vice president in an email to The Daily that confirmed the gratefulness that CSG has for Coleman.
“The president and vice president (of CSG) are both grateful for President Coleman’s engagement during a difficult time of transition,” Rifai wrote. “Her dedication of over a decade of service to the University has had a profoundly positive impact on multiple generations of students.”
Despite praise from some community members, other campus groups and student organizations have criticized parts of Coleman’s time as president. There has been a great amount of activism on campus during Coleman’s tenure, especially by unions.
The Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) held a demonstration in June, and the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council spent months campaigning for a contract agreement with the University for the past few months. While LEO and UMPNC recently came to agreements with the University, this resulted from extensive activism on the part of both organizations and the community surrounding them. Organizations like the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) also have a history of activism against the University, specifically in the case of the strike that took place in 2020.
In an interview with The Daily, Amir Fleischmann — Rackham student and contract committee chair for GEO — said one of the issues that needs to be addressed on campus is the problem of sexual misconduct. Fleischmann said these issues were not resolved by the removal of Schlissel, and that he feels there is more work to be done.
“We were very happy to see President Schlissel go,” Fleischmann said. “But we’re really worried that his firing has been used by the modern administration to shirk responsibility for much bigger problems. The University has, for decades now, been the site of an ongoing culture of sexual harassment … that culture that was here before Mark Schlissel and will continue to be here after Mark Schlissel.”
Fleischmann also claimed Coleman failed to include labor unions in the decision-making process during her return.
“We don’t feel like we’re being seriously involved as decision-makers in a way that we should be,” Fleischmann said. “Considering the administration’s record of getting it wrong over and over and over again, on issue after issue, we really think they should have some humility.”
Kirsten Herold, president of LEO and a lecturer in the School of Public Health, echoed these concerns and said LEO had little to no contact with Coleman during her time in an interview with The Daily.
“We had no relationship with Mary Sue Coleman,” Herold said. “She was not particularly interested in or friendly to the union.”
As Oct. 14 draws near, students, faculty and staff are looking to the future and anticipating what the University will become under Ono.
Regent Jordan Acker (D) said in an interview with The Daily that he was excited and had high hopes for Ono’s presidency, primarily because of Coleman’s contributions.
“I cannot tell you how excited I am for Ono to start,” Acker said. “I think he’s going to be a truly important and transformative president for the University, and that has been only possible because of the groundwork laid over these past 10 months. The University is in exceptional shape.”
Herold said she hopes Ono will learn from the critiques of Coleman’s tenure and engage more with all kinds of groups on campus.
“We need somebody who’s willing to talk with students, who’s interested in engaging with students, who’s interested in engaging with graduate students, undergrads and listening to the faculty,” Herold said.
No matter how one might have felt about Coleman’s tenure, many have expressed gratitude towards her for simply coming back. Acker said Coleman’s return has demonstrated not only her love for the University but her outstanding character.
“I know how much she loves the University, but doing this is pretty incredible and far above and beyond what would be expected of a normal person,” Acker said. “But she is not normal. She’s truly a superhero.”
Daily Staff Reporters Riley Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily Staff Reporter Kylie Claxton contributed reporting