It’s customary to wait 100 days to assess a presidency. But since we’ve seen lately on a national level how far out of hand things can get if you don’t criticize the people in charge quickly enough, I figured I’d weigh in now.
When Mary Sue Coleman became University President, she said her top priorities would be fundraising and recruitment. That’s good. The University needs money. It needs to fill the holes left by administrators and faculty who bailed when Lee Bollinger left.
Thus far, Coleman has been true to her word. Spots in both the administration and the Life Sciences Initiative have been filled. She jumped the gun on the issue of divestment from Israel, but that was probably to assuage donors, so it stays in line with her principles.
Besides fundraising and recruitment, Coleman has thrown her support behind affirmative action and written long, long, long e-mails no one reads. She supported having a vigil on Sept. 11 and has energetically affirmed her commitment to free speech.
It makes me wish she would take a real stance.
Coleman has said a lot, but none of the positions she has taken have been anything other than exactly what they are supposed to be. (She supports free speech? You don’t say. And I don’t want to hear the argument that her stance on divestment was courageous. Courageous would have been not saying anything and being called an anti-Semite for it.) Overall, the first 77 days have been rather boring. Couldn’t she at least have a fun run? A silly walk? Isn’t there some position in the LSI for which Jocelyn Elders could be considered?
As a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, she is well-versed in the problems facing college athletics and the NCAA. She has suggested the NBA’s fledgling developmental league begin accepting players at age 17 instead of 20 (so players uninterested in getting a degree wouldn’t have to bother pretending). She has the rare chance to raise such questions as president of a school with one of the largest, best-known, most commercially successful athletic departments in the world.
There are issues Coleman tackled at Iowa I’d prefer she didn’t pursue at the University. Coleman took over as Iowa’s president in 1995, shortly after a fraternity pledge died from alcohol poisoning. From that point, she led a crusade to curb drinking on campus, earning her the nickname “Chief Nanny” from some observers. Her victories included all Iowa fraternity houses going dry and pressuring a liquor store into not opening in a neighborhood populated by students.
Maybe if she asks nicely, the boys at Sgt. Pepper’s or In-and-Out (it’s so close to East Quad you can crawl there in a drunken stupor) will hit the road so their buildings can be occupied by another Famous Famigs or head shop.
On the flip side, maybe Coleman can resuscitate the Task Force on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which studied the problems of drug use and binge drinking on campus and made recommendations to Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper two years ago about how to deal with such problems. To be fair, the University was precluded from taking action on any recommendations by the task force because it was (and still is) being used as a control group in a study on drinking, in which other schools were given money to put into anti-drinking campaigns while the University was given none. Meanwhile, one student died from alcohol poisoning and a number go to the hospital each weekend after drinking.
I suppose I’ll be happy if the stuff she says starts sounding a little less like what she thinks people want to hear. Example:
“When you are in my world, you realize that people look to the (University) as a trendsetter and that is exciting for me,” Coleman has said. “I would not have left Iowa for anywhere other than Michigan.”
And Bollinger wouldn’t have left Michigan for anywhere but Columbia.
I sat down with Coleman yesterday and asked her about most of these issues. She’s friendly and personable. But every answer was patently the same: she’s open to dialogue, she wants to hear what people have to think, she’s excited about being here. But she seems reluctant to put forth anything that might ruffle feathers. She’s an academic turned politician, which may be the worst kind. When I asked her about problems facing the NCAA, first she said the top priority should be the well-being of the players. She added that care should be taken to make sure there players are focused on academics. And what have we learned? Nothing.
In the end, it might not matter. No one will pay much attention to issues like these if Coleman is forced to deal with the same financial problems at Michigan she had at Iowa. She was commended there for her ability to cut the budget (laying off faculty and staff and increasing class size) and smile through hefty tuition increases. So if the state’s impending budget deficit causes the same sort of situation here, she’ll be right at home. Time to get back to fundraising.
David Enders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.