As the first academic year of University President Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure comes to a close, she has yet to assert herself as a prominent leader during a controversial period in University history. She has yet to demonstrate an ability to effectively lead the University in a clear and exciting manner.
Since ascending to her post, Coleman has shown a disturbing lack of involvement in student affairs, managing to remain remarkably absent from students’ lives. To take an active role in the University, a president needs to make a conscious effort to have her presence felt around the campus. Throughout the year, she has been absent from student functions and is rarely seen around the campus.
From the beginning of her tenure, she has shown a reluctance to interact with students at close proximity. She has declined to teach a course this year, a highly-valued tradition that had kept past University presidents and administrators in close contact with students. Furthermore, Coleman has closed off the usual avenues of student-president contact of the past. For example, the fireside chats and coffee hours that had allowed concerned students to inform the current president of student issues at the University are now often invitation only.
When student groups do approach her, Coleman has not made an effort to address their concerns in a prompt and effective manner. Recently, when Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, together with workers from Toledo-based facility Morgan Linen Services Inc. and union representatives from the United Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees, asked Coleman to terminate all University contracts with Morgan due to their mistreatment of workers, Coleman was vague and indecisive in her response. While former interim President B. Joseph White promptly cut the University’s contract with the New Era Cap Co. last year in order to pressure New Era to negotiate pay and conditions with their employees, Coleman merely agreed not to renew their long-term contracts, leaving herself a loophole to stay invested in Morgan through short-term ones.
The incident concerning Morgan also illustrates Coleman’s reluctance to take decisive action. Her response to the the conflict was to create a taskforce to recommend a new purchasing policy. While taskforces can help shed light on important issues and to find possible solutions, they are not a solution in and of themselves. If any real action does come out of the committee, it is likely to be long overdue.
Coleman’s failure to take decisive action on issues of such import to the University demonstrates an additional area of concern regarding her tenure as president: She has thus far been unsuccessful in enhancing the University’s intellectual atmosphere. This failure to address the pressing issues of the day is enough to make students long for the days when university presidents across the country were intellectual giants pursuing ambitious goals. Unlike these leaders, such as Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson, Coleman seems intent on avoiding controversy that would challenge both faculty and students. The University president should touch the hearts and minds of the students who will soon take their places on the world’s stage, steering the country into the future.
This hesitancy is further evident in Coleman’s inability to become a voice for the University across the country and the world. The affirmative action lawsuits provided her with many opportunities to raise her national stature. She has been unsuccessful in this arena. Coleman has never made a television appearance to defend the University’s position on the affirmative action lawsuits. The most important step she took to garner media attention for the cause was to submit an opinion piece to The Washington Post. This was not the type of active campaign that the University deserved to have mounted on its behalf in regards to such an important issue.
When the University regents selected Coleman to be the next president, they were taking a historic action, as Coleman is one of only a few women heading an elite university. This provided Coleman with the unique opportunity to achieve national stature. She remains, however, unknown around the country. Brown University President Ruth Simmons, in comparison, has instantly rocketed to national prominence. She has spoken at the National Press Club, has been on “60 Minutes” and has made appearances at prominent national events. On the other hand, despite the aforementioned opportunities, Coleman is not regarded as a dynamic leader.
Most importantly, Coleman has not clearly outlined her ideas for the future of the University. After her first year as president, there remains no significant proposals with which to identify Coleman. Some of the blame for this lies in Coleman’s failure to fill key administrative posts. For example, there remains no permanent dean for the College of Literature Science and the Arts nor an executive vice president for medical affairs. Coleman will not be able to plan a future for the University with so many holes in her team.
But the blame for Coleman’s dearth of ideas cannot be attributed to empty or only temporarily-held administrative positions. During his tenure in office, President Lee Bollinger proposed such ideas as the Life Science Initiative, the internship with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Master Plan. He sought to expand the University’s international prominence and prestige in a wide range of areas. Serious questions remain as to how Coleman sees the University’s role in the future.
For these reasons, the Daily encourages Coleman to deliver a state of the University address at the beginning of the fall academic term in order to evaluate her first year as president and to lay out ideas for the University’s future. Hopefully, after a rocky first year, becoming acquainted with her position, Coleman will lead the University into an exciting future as an internationally-renowned institution of higher learning.