The eight-month presidential search concluded anitclimatically yesterday with the nomination and election of one candidate: Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Iowa. Coleman, a biochemistry Ph.D, is uniquely suited to deal with many of the pressing concerns which confront the University. However, Coleman has a difficult transition ahead of her where she must define her role at the University and refine her positions to best suit the challenges here.
The most troubling aspect of Coleman’s experience as president of the University of Iowa was her attitude toward student rights. During her presidency, the University of Iowa implemented restrictions on student conduct and new forms of supervision for its students. The University of Iowa has chilling speech policies that prevent protests in university buildings. Next year, University of Iowa students who are caught drinking on campus will have letters sent to their parents. The University of Iowa has repeatedly tried to invade students’ lives with its anti-alcohol policies While Coleman is not solely responsible for these policies, she has done little to fight them and fails to see the injustices they represent.
This lack of concern for students’ rights is extremely troubling at this particular moment. During the 2002-03 academic year, the president is eligible to make amendments to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, formerly known as the Code of Student Conduct. The Code’s Byzantine system of justice permits hearsay evidence to be submitted, prevents students from having legal counsel speak on their behalf and allows for double jeopardy. Coleman must recognize that the Code has no place at the University and must be abolished. Students should immediately begin to express their outrage toward the Code and encourage Coleman to obliterate the document.
Coleman has tried to make herself accessible to the ideas and opinions of University of Iowa students. She holds monthly “Fireside Chats” where she informally meets with students to address their concerns over the university’s direction. While this accessibility should continue, simply listening to students is not enough.
Coleman must take strong stands and prevent administrators from acting against the broader interests of the University. Her experience at Iowa has made her familiar with the New Era Cap Company, the Worker Rights Consortium and other labor issues. She must act to cut the contract with New Era and expand the University’s dedication to labor issues. The University administration’s stalling and dishonesty that were prevalent during the Graduate Employees’ Organization negotiations should not be repeated.
The role of research
While Coleman is the first woman to assume the University’s presidency, there is a more important first that Coleman represents: The first primarily research-oriented University president. Coleman’s extensive academic and intellectual experience in the sciences provide her with a subtle understanding of science’s future development in relation to higher education. While former University President Lee Bollinger recognized that the life sciences will be one of the most significant developments of the 21st century, his lack of substantive scientific knowledge provided an obstacle to the growth of the Life Sciences Initiative. With Coleman’s scientific knowledge, she will be able to better relate with researches and encourage the initiative’s development.
Just as Bollinger’s lack of scientific expertise could have lead to a disconnect with Life Sciences Initiative executives, Coleman’s lack of credentials in the humanities or social sciences may cause problems with some University administrators and professors. Many professors have expressed their desire for a president with a tradition of scholarship in the humanities, a qualification that Coleman does not possess. Coleman should recognize this lack of experience and consciously work with professors and administrators in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Rackham School of Graduate Studies to show her dedication to the social sciences and humanities and to allay any fears of scholars that they are being neglected.
Coleman has a superb model to follow in this respect. Bollinger, although a legal scholar, made the improvement of the humanities and the social sciences one of the central goals of his tenure at the University. At the beginning of his tenure, he made himself accessible to professors. Coleman must seek to balance the dual needs of strong research and scholarship to maintain the University’ s position at the forefront of every field.
Simultaneously, Coleman must recognize the importance of undergraduates. While there is legitimate concern that Coleman could devote too much energy to the pursuit of research dollars and emphasize research, at the University of Iowa Coleman proposed a comprehensive plan for the university’s undergraduate population. She must assess the current situation and improve the University’s undergraduate academics without increasing the University’s role of parental control.
The most frightening legacy of this presidential search has been its extreme secrecy. The University community’s only insight into the search process came last October in the form of a town hall meeting attended by only half of the regents. Since then, the community has made numerous calls for transparency, including an April letter signed by 47 faculty members expressing their concerns with the search.
The regents’ devotion to secrecy has placed Coleman in a difficult position when she assumes the presidency. The University community is unfamiliar with Coleman and she must work quickly to make herself known to both students and faculty. Her unfamiliarity with campus leaders and administrators will extend the transition period and create uneasiness during this gentle process.
The shadow of Bollinger
Coleman will be responsible for completing many of the projects that Bollinger organized support for and began. The renovations to numerous buildings on Central Campus, the Life Sciences Initiative and the spirited defense of affirmative action are all projects that will continue to be be associated with Bollinger.
Coleman will be constantly judged and compared to the former president. Although there were many contentious issues and many faculty and students harbor bitter feelings about the man, his charisma and intellect earned him broad popular support. Coleman may find it difficult to match Bollinger’s aptitude with making allies and appealing to the public.
The University community must recognize that Coleman is not another Bollinger. She will bring new styles of management and a new set of values to the University. The University community must allow Coleman to generate her own solutions for the University’s problems and her own methods to continue its excellence.