Editor’s note: This article is the final piece in a four-part series on the facets of the University presidency, in preparation for the appointment of the next University president. Read the other parts of the series here.
The President’s Office on the second floor of the Fleming Administration Building will likely sit empty for a few days this summer.
That is how the University’s next president will find it when he or she arrives in Ann Arbor and looks out on Thompson Street for the first time.
When University President Mary Sue Coleman’s term concludes in July, the presidency, and some of the University’s greatest challenges, will be passed on to a new leader who will greatly influence the University’s course over the next decade.
The new leader will be asked to confront a host of issues, including affordability, diversity and a changing face of higher education. On top of those hurdles, the 14th president will need to earn the respect of the community he or she has been tasked to lead.
Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the American Association of Universities, said a new president must be ready to innovate around an array of issues.
“I don’t see it getting any easier for university presidents, and the challenges will become even more difficult in the coming years, given financial challenges at both the federal and state level,” Smith said.
In interviews with The Michigan Daily, Smith, as well as University Provost Martha Pollack and former LSA Dean Terrence McDonald, immediately listed affordability as the top challenge for the next president.
The average annual increase in tuition revenue during the past decade was 5.09 percent, according to data provided by the University.
Between academic years 2004-05 and 2013-14, LSA in-state tuition increased by 60 percent. For out-of-state students, the nine-year trend of increases added up to 55 percent.
In a presentation given at the April Board of Regents meeting, Pollack listed declining state funding — comparable to 1964 levels when adjusted for inflation — as the major reason for tuition increases.
Despite aggressive cost containment measures over the last decade, increasing costs in a few major areas have also played a role in tuition increases.
Additionally, the University has increased its commitment to financial aid, further adding to the necessity of tuition increases. As the only public institution in Michigan to meet 100 percent of financial need for in-state students, the University is also one of the top three Association of American Universities institutions in terms of the amount of institutional aid provided.
However, these issues are not completely new. When Coleman arrived in Ann Arbor in August 2002, she articulated similar challenges in an interview with the Daily.
“Michigan has taken a stance, and I have certainly admired it from afar, that it wants to be a really great University,” Coleman said in 2002. “And that has been driving the tuition increase. We always have to be careful though. We always have to be aware of the issues that students face, and their families face. We don’t want to make Michigan a place that only the wealthy can attend.”
However, Coleman could not predict the economic recession that occured during her term. Despite efforts to increase financial aid and contain costs, the downturn accentuated issues of affordability and propelled them into the next decade.
Though the University has kept tuition increases slightly lower than the national AAU average over the past decade, students at the presidential search forums consistently articulated that the cost of attending the University is too high.
“The way the University got through a lot of (the decline in state funding), quite frankly, was by increasing tuition,” McDonald, the former LSA dean said. “So the national conversation now that universities are too expensive and tuition increases are too high ironically is setting up a situation where the next president is going to be working in an area of constrained resources.”
For the 2013-14 academic year, tuition increased by the lowest amount in 29 years — just a little more than 1 percent.
But simultaneously, the University was attempting to increase financial aid, an effort that was partially funded by development efforts.
If tuition increases level off to maintain affordability, the University will be forced to cope with decreased revenues.
“The national controversy over the increasing cost of higher education is also going to have a downward effect on revenue from the University,” McDonald said. “How to maintain quality and opportunity and variety of experiences for students, at a time when the tuition increases will be quite low, will be a challenge for the next president.”
And as college costs increase, Matt Chingos, a fellow at Brookings’ Brown Center for Education Policy, said presidents must also ensure continuing quality.
“It’s important for leaders of institutions to think about how it is they’re going to provide a better education to all of their students,” Chingos said.
Diversity on campus
Within a year of taking office, Coleman confronted two U.S. Supreme Court cases that challenged the University’s use of race as a factor in admissions.
The next president will likely face the repercussions of another case appearing before the Court this fall — Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. That case is challenging a 2006 ballot initiative that banned the use of affirmative action in Michigan. In the wake of its passage, Coleman gave a dramatic address on the Diag promising the University would remain committed to diversity.
Despite alternative efforts to boost minority enrollment, Pollack said the University has seen a decline in racial and ethnic diversity.
Even in the last four years, between fall 2008 and fall 2012, the number of black undergraduates has decreased. According to University enrollment data, male African American undergraduates decreased by 27 percent and females by 38.5 percent between those years.
The outcome of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action could weigh on the next president’s challenge in expanding access.
“I think part of our excellence comes from our long commitment to diversity, so I think we need to continue to focus on that,” Pollack said.
Pollack also said the University has seen slow but steady progress on socio-economic diversity for in-state students, but not as much for out-of-state students, another challenge she hopes increased financial aid can address.
Changing face of higher education
The University’s new leader will also guide the debate on virtual classrooms, as universities and colleges increasingly change platforms for the delivery of instruction and student engagement.
“We are undergoing a real transformation in how teaching occurs and will occur in the future at large research universities and it will be driven, in part, by technology,” Smith, the AAU vice president, said.
Much of the challenge has emerged with the advent of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, designed to provide higher education to students without the university price. The University has partnered with Coursera, a MOOC provider, and, as of July, offers nine online courses.
Regents and administrators also discussed MOOCs when they visited California last winter to meet with administrators from the University of California system, as well as an executive from Google.
“Universities all over the country are engaged in this debate,” Pollack said. “I think it’s a good thing. I actually welcome the discussion. I think we will look different, but I don’t think we are going away. I don’t see the University of Michigan education being replaced by a set of online modules.”
“I think it’s a real mistake to think that an education is a series of courses and a course is a series of lectures,” Pollack said. “I think that demonstrating and clearly articulating what that value is and also measuring the accountability of learning outcomes is becoming a big issue.”
Though the University has increased focus on exploring new experiential and global learning initiatives, McDonald said the debate over higher education’s format will move “front and center” over the next decade and the next presidency.
Fleming in transition
But apart from tangible challenges, the new president’s most arduous challenge may be respecting Coleman’s legacy while crafting his or her own long-term plan for the institution.
“That’s not an easy task and a misstep can cause a president great amounts of problems,” Smith said.
He said any new president must balance their own vision with the opinions of the University community.
“You need to both listen, have an idea in your mind of where you would like to go, but also listen and be willing to shift and make sure you don’t get yourself crosswise,” Smith said. “A vision at all costs, particularly at large public institutions, can sometimes get you in trouble.”
Earlier this year at the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors, the institution’s governing body, ousted then-president Teresa Sullivan, a former University of Michigan provost. Sullivan had been appointed to the position in 2010.
The Board of Visitors said Sullivan had lost the mandate of the board, as she failed to aggressively pursue MOOCs and a more business-centered model of higher education. Sullivan was later reinstated in the face of outcry from faculty and students, a public embarrassment for the University of Virginia’s governing board.
Smith said a presidential transition also requires balancing relationships. He said new presidents have an initial “honeymoon” period as they begin building rapport with students, faculty, regents, lawmakers and donors.
E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life and one of the University’s most veteran administrators, helped Coleman transition into office back in 2002. Harper said the administrative team, including deans and other executive officers, are charged with moving the University forward as the new president adjusts.
“People who are really good at what they do — and I think the leadership team here is really good — know how to keep going while you recalibrate,” Harper said. “It’s kind of like you keep your eye on the horizon where you’re trying to go, realizing that what comes up on the horizon changes and so then you adjust as that happens.”
Coleman advised incoming freshman — newcomers to Michigan like herself — to be flexible.
“Don’t come in with blinders on,” Coleman said. “Don’t start out thinking that you know exactly what you want to do. Take a little sideway step every once in a while.”
University administrators and higher education experts have echoed Coleman’s suggestion; not for wide-eyed freshman, per se, but for the next president who fills the second-floor office Coleman will leave behind.
Welcoming a new leader
When that new leader arrives in Ann Arbor, he or she will probably give an inauguration speech. Former University Provost Phil Hanlon delivered his last month when he became president of Dartmouth College while Coleman stood at his side.
Coleman delivered her inaugural speech during a formal ceremony in Crisler Arena in March 2003. In a photo on the front page of the Daily the next morning, Coleman is seen beaming at the crowd in a black robe and cap.
Beside the expected components of an inaugural speech — among them the embrace of public higher-education institutions and allusions to former University presidents whose names now grace campus buildings such as Tappan, Angell and Fleming — Coleman lingered for a moment on the Sankofa bird, the species from Ghana that moves forward with its head turned backward.
The species is typically associated with a proverb: “Look to your roots in order to reclaim your future.”
“The glory of the University of Michigan resides in its ability to reinvent itself continually, to cherish its roots while inventing the future,” Coleman said.
Only a few months into her term, Coleman recognized the challenge of the presidency. She knew she needed to balance vision and future hurdles with the insight and tradition of the Wolverines who came before her.
Whoever the University’s 14th president is, he or she will need to do the same.