Mary Sue Coleman did not have an easy
first year as University president. Not only did she face two
lawsuits at the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the
constitutionality of the University’s admissions programs, but she
took the reins of an institution facing acute budget shortfalls, a
large number of senior administrative vacancies and a men’s
basketball program under strict NCAA scrutiny. Even after dealing
with all of these challenges, Coleman has been unable to improve
the lukewarm attitude that many on campus have toward her.
Students and faculty members continue to grumble about their
president and wax nostalgic about the University’s golden era under
former President Lee Bollinger, while mourning what might have been
had interim President B. Joseph White moved into the old white
house on South University Avenue. The campus press has been brutal,
highlighting every perceived mistake on Coleman’s part. The Daily
even went so far as to endorse White for president long after
Coleman had taken over.
I asked Coleman if she knows why she is not adored on campus,
but she declined to hazard a guess, saying that she just doesn’t
know. To be sure, Michigan’s two consecutive losses to Iowa on the
gridiron have not helped, but primarily, I believe that the dislike
can be traced to something much more pervasive: Coleman is just
very different than the image of a president most people at the
University were expecting.
The University Board of Regents shocked many in the University
community the spring before last by selecting Coleman to replace
Bollinger. After all, White had become so popular among the student
body that Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality liked
him even though he was a business professor.
Following a state Supreme Court ruling allowing universities to
conduct searches clandestinely, the Regents carried out the search
behind closed doors.
The typical story of Coleman’s selection goes something like
this: The regents picked her because at Iowa she proved to be an
able fundraiser and she is a female scientist, which would boost
the University’s billion-dollar investment in the life sciences.
The regents would also have more power with Coleman as president
because she would be weaker than Bollinger, a master political
operator. After all, why would they look to Iowa? Coleman doesn’t
even have any Ivy experience.
It became almost en vogue not to like the new president.
Unlike the confrontational Harvard president, Lawrence Summers,
Coleman is a small, humble woman with a moderately noticeable
Southern accent. She lacks a commanding presence, and for some
reason looks more like a scientist comfortable in a lab than a
public intellectual used to traveling the world and sitting on
panels broadcasted on C-SPAN, where the likes of Bollinger learn
the art of removing (for purposes of gesticulation) and then
replacing their reading glasses in an attempt to look even more
scholarly (see Bob Novak). Coleman does not even try to speak in a
British accent of mysterious origins (see William F. Buckley Jr.).
On top of this, all those e-mails that Coleman sends out in an
attempt to stay connected to the student body annoy at least as
many people as they please.
Lee Bollinger fit in well at the University. He was an ambitious
and renowned legal scholar always looking for ways to expand the
University’s prestige. Serving as president during prosperous
times, Bollinger was able to literally go crazy with his
construction plans (see Arthur Miller Theater).
But where Bollinger had a deep and abiding dedication to himself
and to his own advancement, Coleman has as strong of a dedication
to public education. During the interview, she became passionate
about state budget cuts and the importance of having an educated
populous, not only for the economy, but because she has a
Jeffersonian belief in the value of education to the survival of a
functional democracy. She asked, “What is the cost of abandoning
higher education?” and stressed the importance of renewing
society’s dedication to public institutes of higher learning.
Coleman seemed to me genuinely concerned about the same issues
most students are: improving facilities, residence halls, the arts,
tuition, financial aid and the undergraduate experience. She could
probably improve her report among students, for example, by
amending the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to
allow students to have a lawyer represent them in proceedings. She
could try to teach a course, even though it would have to be on
subject matter that doesn’t become outdated as quickly as her
There’s no way to know if she’ll end up being a better president
than B. Joseph White would have been, but in time, students and
faculty will likely adjust their views of Coleman, realize she’s
not Lawrence Summers or Woodrow Wilson and become accustomed to
having a scientist lead the University.