For a brief moment last month, Mary Sue Coleman couldn’t find her words.
After a year marked by lifetime achievement awards, honorary degrees and goodbye receptions, it was a Monday afternoon in the Michigan Union when Coleman’s voice noticeably wavered under the weight of oncoming tears.
Coleman — who has been the University’s most influential voice for the past 12 years — will retire from the presidency in July as the institution’s fourth longest-serving leader.
For months, Coleman’s departure has been tangible, especially within her inner circle. Colleagues in the Office of the President have noted each “last time” since September.
In March, a group of students decided to turn her fireside chat — a tradition Coleman started as president at the University of Iowa — into a makeshift surprise party.
Students, too, were thinking about the end. At an event usually built around students having the chance to ask their president anything, many wanted to know about legacy and what’s next.
Laughing, Coleman’s hands sprung into motion, her small frame inching to the edge of her armchair. The questions didn’t faze her.
But before dozens of students spent nearly 30 minutes past the event’s official conclusion waiting to snap selfies with “Mary Sue,” the Midnight Blue student a Capella group gathered in the back of the Pendleton Room, set up to serenade the outgoing president with a song celebrating her impact on students.
And then, for a second, the almost always-composed President of the University of Michigan struggled to find her words.
“That was the most I’ve seen her choked up. And I think it goes back to why students are so important to her,” said Kim Clarke, Coleman’s nine-year veteran speechwriter. “When I’ve seen her light up the most, it’s when talking about students. That’s where you see the energy.”
By the time four o’clock rolls around on the day of a fireside chat, it’s the part of the afternoon when energy runs low and the rhythm grows sluggish. Clarke said Coleman sometimes bristles when it’s time to walk past the Cube and across Regents Plaza to the Michigan Union.
But an hour later, in the company of a few dozen students, “she’s all amped up,” Clarke said.
Perhaps Coleman’s fireside chats represent a larger philosophy of the Coleman presidency — one that many of Coleman’s closest advisers have said is rooted in inclusiveness and driven by students.
“It’s been the most wonderful experience in my life and it’s largely because of students,” Coleman said from her seat at the March fireside chat. “The students at Michigan are extraordinarily engaged in much of the life of the institution and that makes it a very exciting place to be. The students have made all the difference.”
Erika Hrabec, the Office of the President’s chief administrator and the president’s key aide, said she is frequently surprised by how much Coleman remembers about people, even those with whom she’s had seemingly limited interaction.
“She has a true interest in people,” Hrabec said. “Her style is one of inclusiveness.”
Hrabec, who serves as the gatekeeper for commitments that make it on to the presidential calendar, said Coleman frequently stops to hobnob with students and staff, even if it means running a few minutes late to the next meeting.
While habits like these may be rooted in Coleman’s passion for people, she has also wielded her interests not only to work donors, open access to the school’s library resources in partnership with Google and trumpet the University’s mission across the country and the world, but also to make far-reaching decisions.
“She really is interested in what people think at all levels,” Hrabec said. “She welcomes input. She has a superb leadership team and they are there for a reason. She has to rely on other people. She can’t carry the University entirely.”
Gary Krenz, special council to the president, who frequently staffed for Coleman at meetings of the University’s executive officers, said from the beginning she was intent on developing her right-hand administrators to function in a team dynamic.
“There’s a lot of exchange of ideas — and she’s in the fray,” he said. “Sometimes I think there are leaders who build the team and then they kind of step back and listen. That’s not her style so much. She’s engaged in the discussion and providing her own views. I think what’s fascinating is that all works very well. She developed a team that knew when she was expressing her views in that kind of a setting — that didn’t mean that was her decision or the final word — it meant they were all in it together trying to think this through out loud.”
But when it comes to tackling a new issue or initiative, Coleman is not the president who tosses around big ideas and leaves others to figure out their implementation. While Hrabec said Coleman provides leeway for her staff to carry out the projects they’ve been entrusted with, she is not one to ignore the mechanics of moving a task forward.
“She’s a very goal-oriented person and she’s a get it done kind of person,” Krenz said. “She conceives of things often in terms of seeing the path of how to get from here to there. Other people I’ve worked for are more conceptual — they have the idea but they’re not as specific on the process. She has the process with the goal in mind.”
If Coleman’s student-friendly persona and tendency toward teambuilding are driven by openness, her emphasis on the University’s own accessibility may have been formed with similar values in mind.
Coleman, who was born in Kentucky and came of age in a South separated by segregation, began to understand the corrosive nature not only of division, but exclusion, when she moved to Iowa for junior high school.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, she said it was the University’s decision to fight for affirmative action before the U.S. Supreme Court, that partly led her to leave the University of Iowa presidency for Michigan. But despite the promise of expanded access, Coleman found herself on the Diag in 2006 after the passage of Proposal 2, the Michigan ballot proposal that banned the use of race in admissions, proclaiming the University’s commitment to diversity.
For Coleman, these decisions are rooted not only in a belief in the value of a diverse student body, but also in a drive for connection and accessibility.
“The other part is my strong feeling that we have to partner with other people — that you can’t go it alone and that universities have to open up to the outside community and bring other thoughts and advice in,” she said in an interview with the Daily.
However triumphant the University’s win inside the marbled halls of the Supreme Court, the aftermath of Proposal 2 may also be etched as one of Coleman’s greatest frustrations — and failings — of her presidency.
Black undergraduate enrollment has fallen to just over 4 percent since the Michigan voters banned the use of affirmative action in admissions.
“I think you can never be satisfied and certainly I’m not,” she said. “It’s one of the things I’m disappointed about — that we weren’t able to achieve as much as I’d hoped we would but I know people are committed and I know we’ll keep trying.”
But despite the extent to which Coleman has worked to open her administration and the University she leads, there have been times the Fleming Administration Building has kept information and processes closed off from the public, the media and members of the University community.
In January, after The Daily reported former kicker Brendan Gibbons had been permanently separated from the University, raising questions about the University’s promptness in investigating allegations and sparking criticism of the University’s transparency, Coleman remained largely silent on the issue, citing privacy protections, apart from a written statement.
“Athletics has no influence over sexual misconduct investigations or the academic standing of student athletes,” she wrote.
This incident is not the first that sparked controversy during her final year of her presidency.
In the fall, a number of University faculty criticized Coleman and her administration for failing to be transparent and inclusive in the University’s decision to centralize 250 department-level employees in a shared services center — a component of the larger Administrative Services Transformation.
Sustaining the future
In a 24/7 job like a university presidency, institutional challenges frequently weigh hard on their leaders. If anything keeps Coleman up at night, it’s the task of funding a multi-billion dollar operation— an entity that has seen plummeting state support during her tenure.
In interviews with multiple members of Coleman’s personal staff, preservation of the University’s fiscal health was listed as one of her top accomplishments.
“I always, in the back of my mind, am worried about resources, and making sure that the University of Michigan has enough in the way of resources because what we do is costly,” Coleman said. “We give a personalized education here that I think is the very best education for young people, but we have to have the resources to do it.”
This worry, too, is partly entrenched in the same frustrations expressed due to underrepresented minority enrollment: the struggle to open the University’s doors during a time when it’s becoming fiscally more challenging to do so.
“I’m also worried about families not feeling that they can send a son or daughter to Michigan because of resources so we really have to have more financial aid and that’s at the top of my list,” Coleman said.
When Coleman addressed the graduates of Eastern Kentucky University in 2012, she appealed to the legacy of her grandfather, Albert Wilson, who left his Kentucky farm to go to college, paving the way for Coleman’s father and eventually herself. In many ways, Coleman sees access to higher education not only as the key to a better life for succeeding generations, but as the bedrock of her own journey to the presidency.
“A college education — the diploma you have worked so hard to earn — has a catalytic effect of geometric proportions,” she said.
The campaign, which will continue well into the presidency of University President-elect Mark Schlissel, is just one marker of the ongoing challenges that remain unconcluded at the end of a presidency.
“She’s kind of a caretaker — we’re all caretakers,” Hrabec said. “This institution is so old it’s going to go on long after we’re gone — so for a moment in time, we’re caretakers.”
Though Krenz deferred to define Coleman’s legacy, he said her longevity is significant, noting that the average university president serves 4.5 years, compared to Coleman’s 12.
“The longer presidencies in this university’s history have been the most impactful presidencies and that’s not just because of the amount of time,” he said. “It’s because of the stability that comes with that kind of extended leadership. You need fresh blood, but universities are very dynamic places and to have the protective umbrella of a constant presidency is very helpful to an institution.”
After 12 years, Coleman has left her mark on the University — on the campus landscape, on its coffers and on its community.
But for a president so widely loved and well known, Coleman — who loves bicycling, Joni Mitchell and her cats Jerry and Betty — has often kept the personal, personal.
While the joys of the presidency are often visible, moments of sadness and anger are harder to see.
When a University medical transplant helicopter crashed in 2007, killing the entire team on board, Coleman said it was one of the most wrenching moments of her presidency. She attended all six funerals.
“You can’t predict those sorts of things, but you have to be ready when tragedies happen that you can bring the community together,” she said.
Legacies, like personas, are also hard to pinpoint. Characterizing a 12-year term as open or closed, triumphant or not enough is a task many of Coleman and her colleagues deferred.
“Legacies are best defined by others,” she said in an interview with The Daily and again at the fireside chat, with the Pendleton Room’s historic portraits staring down at her.
Embracing the unknown
In 1961, Mary Sue Wilson, then a high school senior in Iowa, came home to eat lunch with her dad. She arrived to a Western Union telegram, announcing she was a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
The daughter of a chemistry professor and a third-grade teacher, Coleman had been participating in science fairs since junior high. Now, she was the first Iowa student selected as a Westinghouse finalist. Wearing a pillbox cap and white gloves, Mary Sue traveled to Washington and met President John F. Kennedy in the White House.
Fifty years later, she delivered the keynote address to the 2012 crop of what are now called Intel finalists. Those students had just met President Barack Obama, whose signed holiday card sits on a shelf in Coleman’s office.
“If you had told me then that I would become president of one of the world’s leading research universities, I would have laughed out loud,” she said to the finalists. “The only thing I was sure of at age 18 was that I loved chemistry and maybe, just maybe, I would become a college professor.”
Coleman, a biochemist by training, went on to proclaim the beauty in science and unpack the doors opened by discovery and risk-taking.
“That leads me to my first piece of advice for you… I encourage you to embrace the unknown.”
For Mary Sue Coleman, reaching for uncertainty, in the pursuit of possibility, inclusiveness and openness, is more than okay. It’s beautiful.