The Michigan Daily sat down with Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman on Wednesday morning for her first public interview since taking office on Jan. 15. Coleman discussed the presidential search, the controversy with Juwan Howard and sexual misconduct on campus.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Sue Coleman: Before we get started, I thought I’d just tell you about several things that have been really on the top of my mind. I want to make sure the University continues with carbon neutrality because those efforts are really important to me. I was really happy with the regents meeting at the Geothermal Facility up on North Campus — that’s really a groundbreaking way for us to achieve Carbon Neutrality. And I’m excited about that and looking forward to it, and then we’re getting these electric buses. One of the things I’ve heard from students was this worry about food insecurity, and so we’ve put forward $20,000 into the bulk pantries on the North Campus. The third thing is Spring Break coming up, and I know some people are staying, some people are going, and I just encourage everybody to take a COVID test before you leave and a COVID test after you get back. I know people will be responsible.
The Michigan Daily: What is it like being back at Michigan?
MSC: I love the University. I had some of the best years of my life here from 2002 to 2014; even though the circumstances were sad when I came back, when the regents called me, I thought ‘Oh, well my life is going to be sort of upended.’ But quickly, I shed all the responsibilities that my husband and I had and came back.
It’s a different time — eight years is quite a long time, and a lot has happened in the world and in the community …. What I worry about is mistrust, and I think we have to rebuild trust and confidence. I’m glad that people are speaking out now about harm and so that’s been a big positive for me, because I don’t think you can really address harm unless you’re willing to talk about it. So many things are the same, some things are different, but the University is just doing so many exciting things that I sort of revel in learning more about those.
TMD: Looking back into your tenure, what would you have done differently?
MSC: The times are so different, and I think you have to adjust your actions and your expectations to the times, and so everything changes. I think we know more now about things that created harm for people. And so we look at things differently now. But for me, change has been positive because we evolve, and we get better at what we do. We hope and we try.
TMD: As interim president, what role do you have in the Presidential Search Committee and what qualities are you looking for in a good University president?
MSC: I have no official role on the Committee. The most important job of the Board of Regents is that they pick the president of the University, and I am really pleased with the approach that Regents Denise Ilitch and Sarah Hubbard are taking. Having these listening sessions on campus is essential because they need this input to get information about what people are looking for in the future president, and I think they’re hearing a lot.
What I’ve said to the Board of Regents is if they wish for any advice from me, or if they want to talk to me, I’m always available to them, but I don’t have any official role. I think their goal, which I’m very pleased about, is that they are hoping to have this process completed by early to midsummer. I’ve told the Board that if they wish, I would be very happy to help with the transition, but it’s really their call, not mine.
TMD: On Jan. 19, 2022, the University announced it had reached a $490 million settlement with survivors of the late Dr. Robert Anderson. It was widely reported that part of the settlement was Jon Vaughn stopping his protest in front of the President’s house provision in the settlement? Can you confirm if these reports were accurate? If so, do you support this provision in the settlement?
MSC: That was never an official part of the Anderson settlement, as far as I’m told. I wasn’t part of the Anderson settlement, that was a confidential mediation, but I don’t think that was a real condition. However, I thought doing the settlement was the right thing to do. I’m glad that the University did it. It’s going to take a while to get it all through the process because when you’re talking about a large number of people who were involved and a large amount of money, it will take time. We’ll work through all that, but we are where we are.
MSC: Everybody has to decide what they want to do, and I think the settlement was the right thing to do. I think we now have a responsibility to help with healing, and so I wish Jon Vaughn the best.
TMD: The WilmerHale report regarding sexual misconduct allegations against former Provost Martin Philbert says you were made aware of allegations against Philbert but didn’t remember receiving them. The report states if you had received them, you and others “likely would not have given (them) the same weight in 2010 as they would today.” Can you clarify what you meant by this and how would you have handled this situation today?
MSC: I’ve learned a lot since that happened, and part of my learning was being president of the Association of American Universities where we conducted the largest survey on sexual misconduct on university campuses that has ever been done. The first one was 150,000 respondents, the second one was 200,000 respondents, and they were undergraduate students surveys, but there was some indication within those surveys about faculty misconduct and staff misconduct. So our understanding really expanded.
There are two things that have happened that I think have been very positive. First of all, victims are more willing to come forward. I think the #metoo movement has been very positive in that regard. And I frankly learned a lot more about the prevalence of misconduct. At that time, the reports that we got about Martin Philbert were anonymous, and we tried to investigate, but nobody would speak. Nobody would come forward because I think people were afraid. So now, I think they would come forward, and I think that’s a good thing. So that’s what I meant by that comment. I learned a lot and I think society learned a lot.
TMD: What are your thoughts on the new and revamped Office of Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX (ECRT), formerly the Office of Institutional Equity?
MSC: I had the pleasure of seeing Tami Strickman and her team. They made a nice presentation at the Board of Regents meeting about the plans for the office and what they’re going to do, so I was very impressed with the team and Tami in particular. I think the plans they have for the office are extremely good. They want to do a lot of education. They want to provide services to the departments. They want to streamline investigations. They want to do all the things that we heard from the community that would be helpful in restoring trust, changing the culture and really getting us to the point where these incidents don’t happen. Or if they do happen, they are few and far between. I think this is a very positive step for the University. Though, eyes wide open, we have a cultural journey. We’ve got to change the culture, and that’s going to take time. We started with the survey that was done last week about “What are people thinking now?” I think that office will be very, very helpful to the community and I’m looking forward to it.
TMD: Current ECRT Director Tamiko Strickman is currently facing two lawsuits for mishandling cases of sexual misconduct and racial discrimination at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Do you have confidence in her ability to run this office based on these allegations?
MSC: I do. I absolutely have tremendous confidence in her. She is a very impressive woman.
TMD: With the Omicron variant subsiding both on campus and across the country, Washtenaw County removed its mask mandate for K-12 education and other Big Ten universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have also announced plans to phase out indoor mask mandates. Does the University have any plans to lift its mask mandate in the foreseeable future?
MSC: I think what we’re focused on now is what we’re going to do in the fall, and a lot will depend on (scientific) evidence. We have a very, very excellent committee working on this headed up by our head of University Health Service, and they’re meeting weekly. They meet several times a week to look at case counts, illness and what’s happening in our community.
What’s important to realize is that every community is different. What phase Washtenaw County’s community is in is different from our own University community. And so what we want to do is to make sure that we listen carefully to the evidence that (the committee) comes forward with. We don’t have any plans at this moment to lift the mask policy.
TMD: After Sunday’s situation with Juwan Howard, what were your conversations like with Wisconsin’s chancellor and Warde Manuel? What is your opinion on Juwan Howard’s actions?
MSC: Let me set the scene for you: My husband and I were at the women’s basketball game, and it was a tough game against Maryland and oh boy, we were sitting down close. One of the things when you’re sitting down close in a basketball game, you really see how physical the game is and, oh my gosh, it was an amazing, amazing game. But during the game, I got this video that was handed to me, and I saw the incident from the Wisconsin game. Immediately, I got up and went up and spoke with Warde. He immediately got on the situation. I called Chancellor Blank at the University of Wisconsin to apologize on behalf of the institution because I thought it was very important. It’s never acceptable, I don’t care what happens, it’s never acceptable to throw a punch. On the other hand, I was so impressed with Coach Howard and how he came forward with a very — I thought — sincere apology. He’s been suspended for the rest of the season, and it was appropriate. What was done by the Big Ten and by our own athletic department was the appropriate remedy here. I was proud of everybody in this situation, as well as Coach Howard, because I thought he did the right thing by apologizing. It’s what is expected of Michigan. You can make mistakes, nobody’s perfect, but then you can do the right thing after you make that mistake and I think he did.
TMD: With Provost Susan Collins stepping down in May 2022, who are you considering as interim provost? Do you have any idea on who the permanent provost will be?
MSC: Yes, Provost Collins will be leaving May 15 and going to a very exciting job. I was so proud of her. I’ve been in conversation with an interim provost. I can’t reveal the name right now because we’re still in discussion. But that announcement will be made at the March board meeting.
That position will take a year to be filled because what we need to do is to give the new president time to come in and sort of get the lay of the land. The permanent provost will be picked by the next president because the relationship between the president and the provost is really important, and that person is critical to the efficient and effective running of the University.
I’m thrilled with the interim that we’re going to be announcing and just really so grateful to Susan Collins because she stepped in at a time of need for the University and has served admirably as provost for the last couple of years.
TMD: Will the interim provost be an internal or external hire?
MSC: You can’t do an external search in the few weeks that I’ve had, so you can assume that it’s internal. If it were external, we would have had to do an announcement, and we’d have to have a big search committee. I did shut down the search for the permanent provost, and we disbanded the committee. I talked to the committee so that they understood why I didn’t want them to go through all that work because I thought we needed a good solution for the next year. We really want to give maximum flexibility to the new president, and this does that, so I’m very happy with the outcome, but we’re still in the negotiation process.
TMD: I know you mentioned this briefly in your introduction, but what are your thoughts on the recommendations from the Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality? Are these recommendations a priority when looking for a future president?
MSC: Absolutely. The commitment of carbon neutrality is a University commitment. It’s not my commitment, it’s not a personal commitment from the President, it is a University commitment.
Let me give a little bit about my background. My husband and I put solar panels on our house here, even though there’s not that much sun, just because we believe in it. We have an electric car because we believe that we have to personally reduce our carbon footprint. So I was so happy when I came and saw those recommendations from the committee and the fact that the University has has already begun to act on them. We’re going to build the Geothermal Facility up on North Campus, which I think will be groundbreaking. It’s really wonderful. The fact that we’re going out and getting the electric buses right away, and we’re trying to think about electrifying the fleet — all that’s going to take time. We’ve put about $5 million into trying to have LED bulbs across campus to reduce that energy use. There are all these things that we can do, and I hope that students will see what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint. We’re all part of this, and we all have to make an effort. I can’t imagine a president coming in not committing to carbon neutrality because this is such a high-profile program for the institution. I’m assuming the search committee will probe that question. This has been happening at universities all over the country, so yes, I know that commitment to carbon neutrality will probably be there. That will be one of the factors that the Presidential Search Committee will question candidates about.
TMD: Could you speak more on other current initiatives from the recommendations that are in action right now?
MSC: We have a whole list. We just issued some bonds and $300 million of those bonds are going to be for green investments. We’re putting our money where our mouth is, and we really want to promote those efforts. I know the University is in discussion right now about a big solar farm and expanding that to renewable power agreements through DTE. We want to make sure what we’re sourcing through the energy companies is as green as it can possibly be. There are multiple initiatives going on across the institution, and in the next year or so, students will see more of that rolling out.
TMD: We always like to end these interviews with a fun, light-hearted question, so what’s the one thing on campus that you’ve missed the most?
MSC: Oh, the students. During my tenure as university president before 2014, we had these Fireside Chats; E. Royster Harper, who was the vice president for student life at the time, and I would do these together. Her office would invite students to come, so the students who came had an invitation, and we would normally invite students who were upset about something and had something to complain about because we thought, ‘come on in and talk,’ and so we had these over in the Union. They were usually four o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d have cookies and punch. At the end of the day, I would always think, ‘Oh, I’m so tired. I’m going to go to this session,’ but it was so much fun and so interesting that at five o’clock, when that session was over, I was completely re-energized again because it was just fun. Those sessions, even though people maybe had a complaint or something was wrong, we always had really good and interesting discussions. They weren’t complaint sessions at all, and they didn’t end up that way at all. I learned a lot about student life and what students were experiencing and how they felt about Michigan.
One of the things that always just astonished me about the University is how students get connected to the place and how they love the place. It was very inspiring. So I missed that the most.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the University had invested $200,000 instead of $20,000 into the Maize and Blue Cupboard. This article has been updated to reflect this change.
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