Five years into her tenure as University president, it’s tough to find critics of Mary Sue Coleman.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere

Sure, the student labor activists in the group Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality are still fuming about being arrested after their sit-in earlier this year. And Michigan Stadium traditionalists in the Save the Big House group, the faculty and the University community at large are cursing her for her part in defiling the spirit of Fielding Yost with elitist luxury boxes. Faculty members are even getting a few jabs in, especially after Coleman rejected an addition to a handbook that would have codified faculty input in construction decisions.

Overall, though, Coleman’s administration has fended off any substantial controversy. The University Board of Regents is singing her praises for leading the University through two U.S. Supreme Court cases, uncertainty about state funding and weathering a state constitutional amendment that outlawed affirmative action. Last month, it even gave her a 3 percent raise and a heart-warming letter of appreciation for her efforts.

For those who aren’t won over by the University’s ballooning endowment, Coleman’s warm personality adds an element of friendliness that even the most hardened skeptic can’t resist.

But a lot has changed at the President’s House since Coleman took over in 2002. While Coleman may just be responding to new circumstances, for better or worse, her presidency has veered from the path laid by University leaders of the past. With a new president came a new vision, and a style dramatically different than that of Harold Shapiro, James Duderstadt and Lee Bollinger, the University presidents before her. Instead of standing out as a vocal critic of society, Coleman has fallen in with the national trend of running her college as if she were running a business – seemingly trying to appeal to everyone, especially big investors, or in her case, big donors.

Unlike her predecessors, Coleman is not an exceptionally vocal and visible leader, she avoids controversy and, most important, her muted leadership on social issues is making the University a follower of social change, not a leader.

How soon we forget that those qualities are exactly what has distinguished the University since it was founded, what we have come to expect of our president and what the American university means to society. Within this new style of leadership, finding a balance between a university as a social servant and a university as a social critic will mean all the difference.

Founded on dissent

From its beginning, the University has been – both by design and in practice – an independent, often oppositional force in society.

Founded in 1817 as the University of Michigania, the University existed two decades before Michigan was granted statehood. In 1857 its independence was solidified when the new state constitution granted the University constitutional autonomy – a feature it shares with the other state universities and that still exists today. With autonomy, our frontier university had the freedom to challenge the status quo and blaze a new trail without having to fear the wrath of an angry legislature. And that is exactly what happened.

Challenging the private, parochial universities like Harvard and Yale, it was not only one of America’s first public universities; it was one of the first secular institutions. As such, the school offered a break from the aristocratic and moral confines at other colonial universities. And with that break came a more varied curriculum and a more diverse student body, offering an education to all economic classes – unlike its East Coast colleagues.

Summarizing the University’s commitment to inclusion, James Angell, the third president, famously said it offered, “an uncommon education for the common man.” In other words: 19th century affirmative action.

Although for the next six decades the University maintained a spotty record of adhering to its traditions of dissent and diversity, these values never went away. In 1853 the first black student was admitted – 10 years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1870 the University Board of Regents embarked on what they called at the time, a “dangerous experiment,” admitting women for the first time. Although it was one of the first times that any major university allowed coeducation, women were still late to the game in getting equal status – it took another 86 years before they were allowed to enter the front door of the Michigan Union.

When the Civil Rights Era bloomed, the Ann Arbor campus became most recognized for its central role in challenging the status quo. It’s easy to forget, but the value of dissent and the University’s role in instigating social change was already well established in design if not in practice before hippies and sit-ins took hold of campus. But the 1960s and ’70’s uproar reinvigorated the image – Students for a Democratic Society was formed here, sit-ins and teach-ins flourished and the University became a national focal point of protest.

Despite the glory that came with being another Vietnam Era battleground, the University was only functioning exactly as designed: like all universities, it was intended to be, in part, a critic of society and a vehicle of social change.

Upholding the legacy

When the 1970s ended, so did the combative protests. But the University’s role as a social critic didn’t. The torch was taken up again by the president, this time mostly through a fierce and controversial commitment to diversity.

Although each of the three presidents before Coleman – Harold Shapiro, James Duderstadt and Lee Bollinger – were confronted with different problems, three principles tie them together: a commitment to social change through diversity, visibility and a commitment to higher education’s role in society at large.

When Shapiro was president during the ’80s, things weren’t much different than they are now: The automotive industry was in decline, Michigan was struggling because of it and the University was losing its state funding. During the 1970s and 1980s, the portion of the University’s budget provided by the state declined by half, from 60 percent to 30 percent. Adding to the turbulence, in 1987, campus erupted in racial tension after a series of discriminatory incidents, including black students who were spit on, a disc jockey on the University radio station who made racist jokes on the air and a closed black student meeting interrupted when someone slipped a flier under the door proclaiming “open hunting season” on black students.

Through the turmoil, Shapiro managed to work with faculty and other administrators to downsize during the budget crisis. As he recounted in a 2003 interview for the lecture series “Conversations with History,” his style of governance made all the difference. Comparing a more corporate approach to what he considered a more appropriate, academic approach, Shapiro said the following: “In corporate governance, there might be a lot of discussion going on, but eventually the CEO decides and everybody marches in that direction. In an academic institution, it’s more like a partnership. You have to get people’s attention. You have to get them to sign up for this.”

In the same interview, he went on to say that for universities to be socially relevant, social problems couldn’t be avoided. He explained that the “dual role of the modern university as both a servant of society, serving its various interests, and as a critic of society . simply ensure that the university, if it’s doing its job, is going to be a controversial place.” Before he got an opportunity to react to the 1987 race problems, though, he resigned to take up the presidency at Princeton University.

His replacement, James Duderstadt, didn’t hesitate to pick up where he left off. Launching the Michigan Mandate in 1988, Duderstadt immediately recommitted the University to racial tolerance and diversity. The program more than doubled of minority enrollment, from 11 percent to 25 percent, with similar gains in faculty diversity as well. Duderstadt also launched the Michigan Agenda for Women in 1994 to promote the inclusion of women in multiple areas of study.

As he argued in his 1999 book, “Positioning the University for the New Millennium,” promoting diversity was not only morally correct; it was a way to prepare students for a changing world that wouldn’t be dominated by a single race or ethnicity. As society turned its back to racial issues, starting in 1996 with California’s Proposition 209 to ban affirmative action, American campuses were supposed to host the debate in hopes of looking out for society’s best interests.

But diversity wasn’t the only issue Duderstadt tackled. During his eight-year tenure, Duderstadt launched the Campaign for Michigan, a fundraising campaign that brought in roughly $1.4 billion. Similarly, the endowment grew to more than $1.6 billion. The money helped revitalize construction on campus with an emphasis on increasing the capacity for scientific innovation, including projects to create the Lurie Engineering Center, the Cancer and Geriatrics Center and the Integrated Technology Instruction Center.

When Duderstadt resigned in 1996 and returned to teaching, he left behind a vision of the University as a gateway into a new century of globalization, technological innovation and a changing role for higher education.

The University’s 12th president, Lee Bollinger, followed right in step. Now the outspoken president of Columbia University in New York City making national headlines for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, Bollinger was only slightly less visible and controversial during his four years at the University of Michigan.

Seizing the spotlight after the University was sued in 1997 for its affirmative action-based admissions policies, Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, became a national figure in defense of affirmative action. He actively sold the idea to America. More than 142 individuals, corporations and professional associations filed briefs in support of the University, including Fortune 500 companies as big as GM and Intel.

The University’s values and history converged in the two U.S. Supreme Court cases with Bollinger as the named defendant. In the end, the legality of affirmative action was upheld even though the point-based admissions system used by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts was not.

Like Duderstadt, Bollinger also continued the drive into research and science, but with an understanding that there needed to be a multidisciplinary approach to bring these fields into society. In 1999 he launched the Life Sciences Initiative, which channeled the increased investment and endowment into a project to coordinate a variety of disciplines into the emerging fields of genomics, biochemistry and other sciences.

Although he wasn’t perfect, his ability to be both a vocal social critic and a promoter of education’s role in shaping growth brought him national acclaim. He was considered the last of a dying breed of outspoken university presidents.

In a profile of Bollinger in December 2000, the New Yorker wrote, “If you were called upon to invent a perfect university president, you couldn’t do better than Lee Bollinger, of the University of Michigan” – not because he raised the most money, but because he challenged and criticized society.

Changing the guard

When Bollinger moved on to Columbia to face off with world leaders and continue his free speech crusade, the University brought in the president of the University of Iowa, Mary Sue Coleman. No one expected her to continue Bollinger’s fire-and-brimstone outspokenness, and so far she’s lived up to expectations.

Coming in with two priorities – fundraising and recruitment – Coleman has done an exemplary job at both, as the regents acknowledged last month. While the collapsing automotive industry continues to cripple Michigan’s economy, every state funded program has taken a hit, the University has been no exception.

To combat the crisis, the president created one of the most successful fundraising campaign in campus history. Her $2.5 billion Michigan Difference fundraising campaign has been both an absolute success and an absolute necessity.

Additionally, overseeing major construction projects like Weill Hall and the Mott Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Coleman’s leadership both in public and behind the scenes has been unmatched.

But unlike those that came before her, her recognition of the University’s place in society seems to be absent.

Ironically, as the University’s first female president, Coleman’s presidency itself is often cited as symbolic of a huge step. Her presidency hasn’t been, though.

Coleman got her chance to show bold leadership last year. After the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action were decided in 2002, the debate over affirmative action was supposed to have subsided. Then came Proposal 2, Michigan’s ballot proposal to ban affirmative action.

Although Coleman campaigned against the proposal, once the initiative passed with a shocking 58 percent of the vote, her voice faded.

Of course there was the now infamous speech, “Diversity Matters,” on the Diag on Nov. 8, 2006 after the amendment passed. But that speech simply repeated the word “diversity.” There was never an explanation of diversity’s meaning or importance. There was a great deal of the emphasis on never ending the fight to maintain it, though. It all ended with a bold concluding statement that, “We are Michigan. We are diversity.”

The speech didn’t leave many convinced. Neither did the events that followed. Although Coleman promised to “consider every legal option available to us,” the prominent court battle ended after the University lost its fight to postpone the implementation of the amendment until after the admissions cycle was completed. A smaller fight against the legality of the amendment continued but earlier this year it was denied as moot by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th District. There would not be another Supreme Court battle this time.

In the shuffle, Coleman has been lost, pressing forward with the Diversity Blueprints Task Force, an alternative solution to promoting diversity, but keeping the attention on the issue to a minimum.

While there is no reason to believe that the task force won’t be a success, because so far they have been, the lack of attention could prove to be the downfall of the cause elsewhere. Ward Connerly, the anti-affirmative action mastermind behind both California’s and Michigan’s ballot initiatives, is now taking his cause across the country. With five more expected targets in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma for November 2008, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Connerly is planning a “Super Tuesday on affirmative action.” Coleman could be a pivotal figure in defeating these initiatives.

When she has been vocal, the results have been positive. In March 2006, Coleman gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. advocating that America reconsider the emphasis placed on science, painting a picture of a return to the research boom during the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s. The speech, entitled “Not Your Father’s Space Race,” was acclaimed as engaging and powerful. More importantly, the social message was clear. Coleman argued, “Our national priorities are not necessarily shared priorities,” adding, “There’s not a whole lot that we rally behind together as a society, except perhaps who should be the next ‘American Idol.’ “

This defiant side to Coleman doesn’t often shine through. Although the University has a stake in a wide variety of issues, Coleman seems reluctant to take advantage of the bully pulpit her position affords her. For example, she has only mildly engaged on the issue of stem-cell research, an area of pivotal importance to the University, especially after the construction of the new Center for Stem Cell Biology. Federal restrictions limit research at the center to the roughly 60 already-derived stem cell lines, that, coupled with even more stringent state-level restrictions, ties researchers’ hands behind their backs. If these restrictions continue, the University risks losing its best researchers and its edge in an important new field. That seems to be a threat worth fighting against.

The same goes for a multitude of other issues, which have been touched upon but not stressed. As proved by the eight University professors who shared in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the University has had a large stake in the global warming debate for a long time, but it hasn’t taken much of a leadership position. The same is true of universal health care plans, which the Democratic presidential candidates are reviving and in 2004 Coleman herself called “an urgent problem” with “no justifiable excuse for delay.”

In her first five years, it’s been easy to praise Coleman for her ability to raise money. The strength of her behind-the-scenes, low-profile approach is debatable, though. It could be the answer to the University’s problems or it could be making it less socially relevant.

The fundraiser-in-chief

While it’s easy to notice the contrast between Bollinger’s outspokenness and Coleman’s more considered approach, the dramatic difference is symptomatic of the changes that are occurring across the country in higher education. In comparison to many other schools, Coleman’s emphasis on fundraising and development, and relative silence on social issues is commonplace.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham agrees. Although maintaining that Coleman has been the exception to the rule, Cunningham said: “Up until the later half of the previous century university presidents were turned to as opinion leaders. Since that time it seems many universities have slowly moved away from that role.”

As public support for higher education has dwindled, demand for a college education has soared and rising tuition prices have brought greater scrutiny, the American university is changing and the presidencies are going with it. In the balance between social criticism and social promotion, colleges are increasingly becoming a servant of society, not a separate force.

In his book, “Positioning the University for the New Millennium,” former president Duderstadt explained the changing context well. He wrote the following: “The American university is clearly under attack: criticized by parents and students for the uncontrolled escalation of tuition; attacked by state legislatures and governors for insufficient attention to state needs . attacked by the left and the right for the quality and nature of undergraduate education; and generally blasted by the media in essentially any and all of our activities.” It makes for a difficult work environment.

As higher education transforms to meet the changing needs of the nation, university presidents have found themselves piloting multi-billion-dollar institutions. And they are making big money to do it. After her 3 percent raise last month, Coleman is up to a base salary of $532,000 a year and with added bonuses and retirement compensation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, she is now the third highest paid public university president in the country, at a total package of $757,643 a year.

With the new demands on higher education, what the public wants is less of the university as an “Ivory Tower,” telling society how to better itself, and more of the university as a training ground. What this new model also calls for is an end to the crusader president.

There is no better example of this change than at America’s prodigy child, Harvard University. When Larry Summers, former Secretary of Treasury under President Clinton, became president of Harvard in 2001, he came in with an agenda to change the complacent culture that he saw as preventing Harvard from becoming a social force. It was Washington D.C. meets Cambridge in dramatic fashion. But after five years of criticizing grade inflation, comparing divestment from Israel to anti-Semitism and, finally, insinuating that women might not be biological capacity of competing with men in math and science, Summers’s loose tongue lost him his job.

His replacement is Harvard’s first female president, Drew Faust, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Coleman in both appearance and leadership. At her inauguration last Friday, she echoed what has guided the new image of higher education, saying, “College used to be restricted to a tiny elite; now it serves the many, not just the few.”

With the bitter aftertaste of Summers still stinging, it’s probably not unfair to say that “serving the many” may mean clamming up and keeping the social advocacy behind the scenes.

Coleman is leading the University in a new direction. Only time will tell if the it retains its position as a socially relevant critic.

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