WASHINGTON – When the Center for Individual Rights filed its first lawsuit against the University in October 1997 attacking its race-conscious admissions policies, Mary Sue Coleman was leading the University of Iowa.
Now president of the University of Michigan, Coleman will watch today as University lawyers defend the lawsuits she inherited from her predecessor, Lee Bollinger. The last eight months spent defending the cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger have been an exhilarating experience, Coleman said in an interview with The Michigan Daily yesterday.
“These are important cases for all higher education and for society … history is being made,” she said. “These cases have certainly deepened my commitment, just sort of realizing up close how important they are to our country.”
Coleman said she does not see herself as inheriting the problems of a previous administration. During last year’s presidential search, the University Board of Regents was very honest with her about the challenges of the lawsuits, she said.
“They’re problems, but they’re opportunities too,” she said. “We’re really changing the conversation about what all this means and what diversity means.”
Another issue handed down to Coleman was the NCAA investigation into the Michigan basketball program and the Ed Martin scandal. Coincidentally, the University athletic department fired Michigan basketball coach Steve Fisher the same week in October 1997 that CIR filed its lawsuit, after it was revealed Fisher might have known about Martin giving money to basketball players.
“The great opportunity that came for Michigan was back in November when we were able to stand up and say what happened was wrong. We’re embarrassed by it and we’re ashamed of what happened and we’re going to do the right thing.”
The University imposed sanctions on itself in November, including forfeiting all games played by the four players accused of accepting money from Martin, and faces the possibility of further sanctions from the NCAA.
“I think because Michigan did that, then you’re seeing a lot of other schools now that are taking more aggressive action than they did before, so I think Michigan led the way.”
Coleman mentioned very few specific plans for the next academic year, apart from ideas about expanding on life sciences and technology programs. She discussed new initiatives coming out by fall in regard to implementing various facets of the Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education, recommendations for improving student life released in November 2001.
“I’m sure they’ll have some information by the end of the semester, going into the fall,” Coleman said, referring to a group of faculty responsible for examining the report.
While most students get a four-month break from the hustle of Ann Arbor, Coleman said she has a busy summer planned. The University Board of Regents will decide next year’s tuition rates in July as the University finds itself in its worst financial shape in a decade, facing a proposed 6.5 percent cut in state funding.
Coleman testified in Lansing earlier this month before the state House Higher Education Appropriation Subcommittee. She said she continues to explain to legislators the importance of the University to the state, as well as the student groups and support services dependent on funding.
“It’s an education process because many of our legislators in Michigan are new because we have term limits,” Coleman said, adding that many legislators are unaware of the depth of the University.
Coleman said she wants to increase her relationships with students using her monthly fireside chats. She said she finds the students here much more engaged than at Iowa, especially at meetings with student groups.
“I don’t have any trouble sort of drawing people out to talk,” she said.
She said her contact with the Greek community has been positive, although she does not believing in imposing rules on them. During her tenure at Iowa, all fraternities went alcohol-free, but she said that change was brought about by the students themselves.
“All student organizations have to decide what they want to accomplish,” Coleman said. “They experience what happens in their various organizations.”