After accepting a second five-year term as University president in 2006, Mary Sue Coleman exclaimed, “I have the best job in higher education. Period.” Coleman addressed the University Board of Regents on Thursday in her annual talk outlining accomplishments and goals. While Coleman demonstrated her commitment to improving the campus community through more outreach programs and enhancing interdisciplinary research, she failed to mention a certain hot-button issue, one that threatens to cast a dark shadow over a lot of the good the University has done.
Of all of the initiatives Coleman proposed in Thursday’s speech, her plan to add 100 tenure-track faculty positions by 2012 was the most significant. She mentioned the accomplishments made by faculty of two different disciplines working together, which is the reason the new tenure-track positions will be interdisciplinary. Coleman can be credited for continuing the University’s push to be the best at what it does, despite a persistent squeeze in state funding. The University must be ensure that the new positions go both to top scholars from other institutions and to current faculty who have already put in the time serving this institution.
Coleman also outlined the significant contributions and potential of the University Research Corridor. The URC is comprised of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, and together those institutions drive research in Michigan – to the tune of $1.3 billion per year. Separate funding for these research universities was a contested issue, but Coleman and other URC leaders deserve credit for successfully lobbying the state to allocate separate funds for next year.
Coleman rightfully acknowledged the University’s obligation to give back to the state – it is a public institution, after all – and addressed the University’s efforts to reach out to students around the state. She discussed a Center for Outreach and Engagement as part of an effort to expand the University’s presence in public schools in the state, as well as broader plans to ensure the University maintains a diverse campus in the aftermath of Proposal 2.
However, outreach must not be limited to high school, which is too late a phase to truly mold qualified students. Getting involved in middle and elementary schools is a more comprehensive solution, because it allows the University to play a more active role in creating the very students it can one day admit. Such initiatives are crucial if the University wants to maintain a diverse campus in the long term.
Coleman touched on drops in state funding but failed to address its results: rising tuition that threatens to undermine the University’s diversity initiatives by making it unaffordable. To its credit, the University generally increases financial aid to even out increased tuition, but this is something that Coleman must directly address: It is an important part of assuring potential applicants that the University is committed to remaining within the reach of every student. Tuition is a very tangible concern for almost the entire student body and not something that can be glossed over in a major address.
Coleman’s failure to mention tuition costs may well be benign: The University can at least point to its financial aid packages as proof that it is attempting to minimize the burden on students. Her failure to mention the renovation of the Big House and the controversy surrounding it, however, is indicative of a large problem.
In an ironic twist of language, Coleman’s only mention of the stadium was, “All of us know the feeling of standing in Michigan Stadium .” Actually, some of us don’t, but Coleman’s failure to acknowledge fans in wheelchairs should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the University’s mind-numbing attempt to skirt regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and demands of the U.S. Department of Education.
As the University faces a lawsuit from the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and a threat of revoked federal funding from the Department of Education, Coleman and the administration still appear oblivious to the plight of disabled fans and apparent discrimination at Michigan Stadium. This shouldn’t be so big of an issue: The University should do what it takes to meet regulations and move on. Unfortunately, it inexplicably continues to drag its feet.
Coleman and the University have accomplished much in her first term, and there are many commendable initiatives in the pipeline. It would be a shame for all of that to be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the stadium renovations. But that is exactly what the University deserves as long as it fails to address the significant concerns of disabled fans.