Getting to know the students at the University is a priority for University President Mary Sue Coleman as she kicked off her first in a series of fireside chats yesterday, allowing her to gain the student perspectives and giving students the opportunity to meet her.

Paul Wong
University President Mary Sue Coleman talks with students during a fireside chat yesterday in the Michigan Union.

Questions for Coleman varied widely from diversity on campus to the availability of office hours for professors. But she used the event to survey what issues are on the minds of students – turning questions for her into questions for the students and asking for their opinions.

“These are all things that I can put in my brain and ask questions about. If they are on student minds I need to know about it,” she said.

In answering questions she highlighted her initial goals, including making sure the Life Sciences Institute is running smoothly. She said the Institute was floundering when she first arrived so she moved quickly to appoint Alan Saltiel as director of the Institute.

Coleman said she hopes the LSI will increase opportunities for undergraduates to help in research endeavors, though she said the University currently offers many other research opportunities.

Participants expressed concern for student safety and campus security. She said new electronic locks will be installed on residence hall room doors and public safety is keeping closer watch on the residence halls.

When one participant asked about the stairwells of Dennison Hall, on which she saw another student trip because of loose tiles, Coleman promised to look into the building’s maintenance.

She also said an initiative is underway to reduce overcrowding in the residence halls.

“More students want to live in residence halls and there is a pressure that wasn’t there five years ago,” she said. She added that Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper has hired a consultant to do an analysis of the need for a new residence hall and to evaluate the configuration of existing halls. She said the report should be completed by spring.

Participants also expressed concern with the effectiveness of Residence Hall advisors and urged the increase of compensation for RAs. Coleman expressed interest in how advisors are utilized by their residents. Coleman plans to continue meeting with students through fireside chats beyond this initial process of learning about the University.

“It is as important after five years as it is in the first two months. Issues change and students have different ideas. I can’t assume anything and I have to keep hearing,” she said.

“It was really interesting for me to hear why students come here and the pride that they have, but they also alerted me about some things – buildings that we need to look at or that I need to know about, and the issue of computers and the interest in wireless networks,” she said.

Coleman, former president of the University of Iowa, was appointed president of the University of Michigan in May and has been serving full-time since Aug. 1. Participants asked about her background and asked why she decided to leave Iowa.

“When you are in my world, you realize that people look to the (University) as a trendsetter, and that is exciting for me,” she said. “I would not have left Iowa for anywhere other than Michigan.”

Students said they attended the chat both to have their voice heard and to meet the president. Engineering senior Stefan Bankowski said Coleman answered the questions well but was worried that she might not follow through.

“She said she would look into it and ask questions about it. But I wonder how much power she has to change things. I would like to think she does, as a leader, have the power to start these initiatives. But it is a big university and it is hard to get the ball rolling on a lot of this stuff,” Bankowski said.

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