Upcoming president has hard act to follow

By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 30, 2013

With great power comes great responsibility — a mantra University President Mary Sue Coleman knows all too well.

As Coleman prepares to step down July 2014, the responsibility for finding a new president will fall on the eight members of the University’s Board of Regents and seven faculty members, who form the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. The committee, assisted by Alison Ranney, a search consultant from Russell Reynolds Associates, has just concluded a series of six public forums to answer several key questions: What qualities are desired in the next University president? What opportunities and challenges lie in store for the University?

Coleman has left an indelible mark during her nearly 12 years at the University — its longest serving president since Harlan Hatcher retired in 1967 after 16 years at the helm. In Coleman’s time as president, she has been called upon to serve in a number of roles, including fundraiser-in-chief, diplomat for the University on an increasing global stage, facilitator of change, advocate for the University at all levels of government and symbolic leader of all three University of Michigan campuses. Her successor will need to assume all those roles and more as they begin their own tenure at the University.

In an e-mail interview, Regent Katherine White (D), vice chair of the Board of Regents and acting spokeswoman during the search process, referred to a list posted by the search committee detailing their expectations for potential candidates. These include the ability to serve as a national advocate and spokesperson for the University, increase racial and socioeconomic diversity, address future challenges, and be a model of humility, integrity and passion for student support.

The University has been the beneficiary of three large donations from Stephen Ross, Charles Munger and the Zell Family Foundation within the past year. The next president will have the same opportunity and challenge of engaging with University alumni and potential donors.

Coleman helped exceed fundraising goals by $700 million in the University’s four-year Michigan Difference capital campaign — which concluded in 2008 — with a total $3.2 billion, surpassing the original $2.5 billion goal. While the overall goal of the next fundraising campaign, “Victors for Michigan,” hasn't been announced, more than $1 billion will be earmarked for financial aid.

Coleman works daily with Vice President for Development Jerry May and the University’s Office of Development, as will Coleman’s successor, who will immediately inherit the remainder of the next fundraising campaign.

May said Coleman holds a dedicated “vision” and “superior interpersonal skills” that are necessary for a University president to be an effective fundraiser. Her passion for fundraising allows her to garner these historic donations: renovations and plans are already underway.

“She is very supportive of the overall program of fundraising,” May said. “She contributes to it, and another way of being supportive of it is that she works and builds relationships with the most generous donors in constituency to the rest of the University.”

May added that he hopes to have a “seamless transition” between the two presidents, as Coleman’s 12 years of relationship-building will impact the work of her successor.

“That’s part of the seamless transition down a long line,” May said. “You think of yourself as a representative of the University as opposed to central to everything.”

The increasing importance of fundraising is in part a result of reduced state appropriation to the University, May said. In the midst of declining state appropriation, Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a 2-percent increase for higher-education funding for this year’s fiscal budget, adding $30.7 million to Michigan’s $1.4-billion higher-education budget. This jump follows a 3-percent increase from the year before, improving from a 15-percent drop for the 2012 fiscal year.

During her tenure, Coleman has served as a cheerleader for the institution, testifying in Lansing for higher state appropriation and writing an open letter to President Barack Obama about the importance of higher-education support. Coleman and Obama certainly can agree on one thing: affordability remains one of the largest concerns facing higher education.

Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations, said she and Coleman have “a strong partnership,” and that Coleman’s work reflects that of previous University presidents.

“The University of Michigan has had a history of presidents who have been willing to speak up and speak out about the importance of higher education issues of the day,” Wilbanks said. “The University of Michigan is looked to as a leader in providing really strong advocacy for policies and funding that support our mission.”

To effectively work with the state and federal government, the University president needs to create relationships with all parts of the political spectrum, ranging from members of Congress to local elected officials, Wilbanks said.

While Wilbanks said she hopes state appropriations continue to increase and the federal government will refocus on higher-education issues, affordability stands at the forefront of concerns for many at the University. The next president will face budget constraints, and University Provost Martha Pollack said she hopes this new leader starts where Coleman leaves off.

In order to limit tuition increases in the face of declining state support, the formulation of the University’s annual budget and cost containment has become a critical focus of the University’s administration and of individual schools and colleges. Pollack said the next president will need to immediately face the persistent budget issues and continue working on cost containment.

“Clearly, we need someone who is really in tune with the challenges of not just any university, but of a university in the niche we occupy, which is a flagship public research university,” Pollack said. “I think we have a good team in place to keep on pushing, and I’m very optimistic that the new president will have support for where she needs to handle these challenges.”

In developing the University’s budget, Pollack said she and Coleman work together frequently — spearheading a collaborative process between the individual schools and colleges’ offices, other executive officers and the regents.

Coleman completed her tenure in the midst of national economic turmoil, with tuition rising from $7,485 to $12,948 for residents, and $23,198 to $40,198 for non-residents between 2002 and 2013. Tuition rose only 1.1 percent for this fiscal year, compared to an increase of 2.8 percent for in-state students and 3.5 percent for out-of-state students last year.

Affordability is a significant challenge for many University students, who are the heart of the institution, said E. Royster Harper, vice president of student affairs.

Harper said one of Coleman’s most important contributions to improving the quality of the student experience on campus was the Residence Life Initiative — a more-than-$1-billion commitment over the last decade to renovate residence halls and other facilities. Harper said students should continue to have a close partnership with the president, just as they have with Coleman.

“I think that’s both the heart of what Michigan is; I think it’s something that President Coleman had when she came and certainly embodies,” Harper said. “I think any new president will need to understand the power of the voice of students at Michigan … I think it's part of our strength.”

Students also benefit from an undergraduate teaching staff ranked 12th by U.S. News and World Report. According to Terrence McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library and former LSA dean, Coleman has been effective at helping individual schools and colleges retain quality staff members. While each school’s dean works more often with the provost, McDonald said they benefit from knowing a “sensible” and “powerful” leader guides and progresses the University.

Coleman’s commitment to many facets of campus reflects the strength of the University’s previous presidents, McDonald said. Since McDonald joined faculty during Harold Shapiro’s presidency, he said he’s seen a common thread of qualities throughout the past and present presidents: They’re “focused,” “determined” and “relentless in their pursuit of goals.”

By the expectations of those conducting the search, those qualities in a candidate are mandatory.

From talking to donors, working with faculty, socializing with students or creating a budget, the next University president will have a lot on his or her plate when they begin in 2014. There are some big shoes to fill, but one thing’s for certain: The next president will serve as the face of the University for years to come.