There were 12 presidents that oversaw more than 197 years of University history before Mary Sue Coleman was selected as the 13th president of the University in 2002. A dozen years later, she’s retiring and the classic, end-of-tenure question arises: Is she the University’s best president?

According to James Duderstadt, the University’s 11th president, and former LSA Dean Terrance McDonald, the director of the Bentley Historical Library, presidential legacies are best determined by the times in which they took place.

Follow the money

The University’s most recent presidencies have largely been shaped by economic conditions.

In 1960, the University’s General Fund — which pays for academics, admissions and services like museums, libraries and insurance — was financed with 78 percent state dollars, and the rest student tuition and fees. Today, the fund accounts for $1.7 billion, or 27 percent of the University’s approximately $6.4 billion budget.

For the next two decades, state support stayed relatively stable until economist Harold Shapiro assumed the presidency in 1980. At that point, state dollars accounted for 65 percent of the fund, and over the next few years, dropped 30 percent, mainly in a free-fall that resulted from the 1980 recession.

Shapiro’s reaction was to embrace “smaller but better,” choosing to focus on cutting costs and launching the University’s first major fundraising effort.

In 1988, Duderstadt, a nuclear engineer, took over the presidency and found a less extreme economic backdrop. State funding levels continued to fall, but on a gentler slope. Student tuition and fees continued to rise until they surpassed state funding as the key contributor to the General Fund.

Lee Bollinger succeeded Duderstadt in 1996. Duderstadt said Bollinger did not seem comfortable at Michigan and preferred the East Coast. After five years, Bollinger resigned to become president of Columbia University.

“To put it bluntly, I think the place went into a nosedive for a while (under Bollinger),” Duderstadt said. “And I think one of the challenges President Coleman faced was pulling it out of the nosedive and getting it back into leveled flight.”

Coleman assumed the presidency in 2002 in the midst of a national financial crisis, popularly referred to as the dot-com boom and subsequent bust.

“People can forget that almost the day that Mary Sue Coleman became president of the University of Michigan, the Michigan economy collapsed — also the national economy.” McDonald said.

Add to that the 2008 recession, and it becomes clear why state funding has dropped another 30 to 40 percent since the turn of the century. Today, state funding is 16 percent of the General Fund; student tuition and fees account for 71 percent — an almost mirror flip from their percentages in 1960.

The lack of state funding, however, has multiple aspects.

It’s a toxic mix of economic turmoil and lack of state investment, and Duderstadt pointed to prison as a possible culprit.

“We spend $2 billion a year on locking people up right now,” Duderstadt said. “More than any other state in the Union, our prisons are more expensive and are locking up a higher fraction of our population. So for whatever reason, a series of decisions were made that prisons are more important than education in this state. Today even the Tea Party people are beginning to believe we walked ourselves out on a limb on that one.”

Coleman responded to the financial hardship with a concoction of fundraising and expansion, quite a contrast to Shapiro’s “smaller but better” approach in the 1980s.

“Her attitude always was we have to go forward in spite of these constraints,” McDonald said. “That is where a presidential personality can make a difference. There could have been a president who said, ‘we better stop building, we better drop five schools,’ or something dramatic like that.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Coleman said she understood the state could not supply the resources required for the University to remain competitive with its peer institutions.

“We had to do much more in philanthropy — we had to be much more like a private institution while still being proud of our heritage of being a public university and so we had to confine those two better,” Coleman said.

Coleman’s fundraising prowess can be argued as a central component of her legacy. She piloted two fundraising campaigns: First, the Michigan Difference, which raised $3.2 billion between 2004 and 2008, the most by any public university campaign in American history; and second, Victors for Michigan, which launched this past year with a $4 billion goal.

“She’s easily one of the smallest of handfuls of effective presidents in America with campaigns,” said Jerry May, vice president of development. “I mean lets face it, no public universities have had campaigns this big, and she’s led our campaigns and inspired donors.”

Coleman also combated the lack of state funding by increasing enrollment and tuition.

Between Winter 2002 and Fall 2013, the student body grew from 36,377 to 43,710. To compare, Duderstadt said there had been serious thought to reduce enrollment in select schools during his presidency.

“The growth in the size of the student population — with a significant fraction of those coming from out-of-state students paying significantly higher fees — really was the key to plugging the whole that was left from the withdrawal of state support,” Duderstadt said.

The economic environment could have had a really devastating impact on the University, but McDonald said Coleman strengthened the University over her tenure and set an optimistic tone.

Context matters

McDonald said Americans frequently make the mistake of confusing the context with the individual, and are tempted by a ‘Great Man’ theory of history. While a president sets the tone and can possibly damage the institution, he warned that there are much larger forces at play than any one individual.

“Michigan is a notoriously decentralized organization,” McDonald said. “The president doesn’t hand down orders from the Fleming building. There are 19 schools and colleges run by their faculty and led by their deans and a lot of the good things that happen on this campus happen on this great decentralized level.”

For instance, a juxtaposition of the University’s expenditures under Duderstadt and Coleman is insightful not only for the two presidents’ priorities, but more so for what was necessary at the specific junction. Duderstadt focused mainly in the core academic units, renovating most of LSA, while Coleman upgraded more of the auxiliary units like medical buildings, student residence halls and athletic facilities.

Duderstadt compared it to the catchphrase ‘You play the hand you’re dealt.’

“This institution kind of shapes the presidency and the agenda of the president rather than vice versa.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.