It’s not easy to be president of the University of Michigan these days. The state government has stopped adequately funding higher education, affirmative action is no longer legal and the Department of Justice is pretty angry that Michigan Stadium isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
None of that day-to-day struggle, though, is an excuse for not having a bold vision that campus could rally around.
Covering her as an administration reporter for this newspaper, I was impressed by University President Mary Sue Coleman’s intelligence. She’s always been a solid president, but she’s never been a hero. That’s mainly because she hasn’t outlined the grand goal that would set her and this university apart.
University of Michigan presidents in the recent past have had such bold ideas. James Duderstadt, for one, started the Michigan Mandate, which more than doubled minority enrollment.
Similarly, Coleman has had her share of initiatives, but they’ve been largely safe and uncontroversial (adding skyboxes to Michigan Stadium is the exception). She launched the $2.5-billion Michigan Difference fundraising plan, and last summer it succeeded. She has given several state of the University addresses thick with moderately difficult goals. She has voiced innovative commitments to interdisciplinary research. Yet none of those are the kinds of goals that get people talking.
Perhaps her best chance to roll out a vision came the day after the passage of Proposal 2, which banned race- or gender-based affirmative action in state public institutions. I stood in the disappointed crowd on the Diag that day and waited for her to tell campus something it did not expect to hear. Instead, she gave a deflated speech filled with abstractions and the repeated use of the word “diversity.” It didn’t seem like anyone was very inspired afterward as they trudged back to their regularly scheduled lives.
Daily writer Gary Graca dubbed her “the quiet president” in a profile published in October, and he was spot-on. The University is never going to collapse with Coleman at the helm, and maybe it won’t even take a step backward. But it doesn’t appear it’s going to do anything transcendent either.
That doesn’t mean Coleman still can’t outline a big idea that would ignite everyone – not just the faculty or the students or the alumni.
What if Coleman were to propose that in the next 20 years the University would solve the world’s energy crisis?
Or promise to spend more of the $7.1-billion endowment and make the University completely free for any undergraduate whose parents earn less than $80,000 a year and any in-state student whose parents earn less than $150,000 (in today’s dollars) within 10 years?
Or announce a mandate to cure AIDS here in 25 years? Or cancer?
Or map a 15-year plan to take the University completely private so that it wouldn’t have to rely on fickle state funding and could use affirmative action however and whenever it wanted (maybe that’s what Coleman should have done on the Diag the day after Proposal 2 passed)?
There’s something to be said for pie-in-the-sky goals.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a crowd at Rice University about his promise to land a man on the moon before 1970 – a goal nearly everyone thought would be impossible to meet. He addressed those who considered it foolish because they believed it wouldn’t directly improve the lives of Americans.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” Kennedy said. His point was that you set improbable goals because they “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” and he was right.
Coleman knows that better than most. She told me in an interview three years ago that she was inspired to become a scientist by the Space Race.
In a speech to the National Press Club in 2006, she said, “I came of age with Sputnik and the Space Race. I sometimes find it hard to believe it’s been 45 years since President Kennedy issued his call to put a man on the moon, because the enthusiasm and energy it produced in me and so many others is still so distinct.”
President Coleman, now it’s your turn to be the inspiration. When’s your speech?
Karl Stampfl is the Daily Editor’s in chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org