No matter how many wonderful things Mary Sue Coleman accomplishes as University president, she will be remembered for one major initiative: the renovation of Michigan Stadium.
Of that, I have little doubt.
Take the rabid anger of alumni a few years ago when the Athletic Department put a gaudy yellow ring around the top of the stadium. Now compare that reaction to their silence as the state cut tens of millions of dollars in University funding in the past few years.
Whether it’s fair or not, if Coleman fundamentally alters Michigan Stadium, even if those alterations are done tastefully, her presidency – no matter what she wants to make it about – will be remembered for those renovations to the stadium, the University’s most televised landmark.
I will set aside all the practical arguments – the ones most likely to sway the University Board of Regents – against the skyboxes because they have been made before. I will say, however, that I’m surprised at how gung-ho a board of regents and an administration with very, very little experience building $300 million stadiums have been. This is, however, largely the same group that, despite its inexperience jumpstarting massive life sciences initiatives, spent more than twice that amount on a life sciences building spree under Coleman’s predecessor because every other university was doing the same thing. We were behind the curve then, just as we’re apparently behind the curve at adding luxury boxes to our stadium.
In January, I wrote a lengthy profile of Coleman (Michigan woman, 01/19/2006). I spent a fair bit of time with her and talked to a number of people who know a lot about Coleman and the University.
I concluded that Coleman is doing a very good job as president, but I also found that almost nobody could coherently tell me what her vision for the University is. Not her vice president for communications. Not the regents. Not the administrators or officials she works with closely on a day-to-day basis. Not even Coleman herself.
But after looking at her initiatives, reading her public statements and talking to Regent Olivia Maynard, I figured out that Coleman does have a noble vision for this place.
Coleman is breaking down barriers and recommitting the University to its dual historic legacy: providing what longtime University President James Angell called “an uncommon education for the common man” and generating knowledge that can benefit people outside the University’s boundaries. As Maynard told me, the University should be part of the world around it, not an ivory tower.
Symbolically, that effort comes in the form of being the first female president. But she is also trying to make the University more seamless – internally and with the outside world. She wants to make the University more affordable and accessible to people who have traditionally seen it as out of reach. She wants the vast knowledge in the University’s libraries to be available to everyone. She is trying to engage the world in which the University exists but often finds itself marginalized.
Her support for spending $300 million on luxury boxes for wealthy fans only clouds that vision, because those luxury boxes stand for everything her presidency and this university do not.
I’m not asking Coleman to take the lead against the national trend toward the commercialization of college athletics. But at some point, for her work on the University’s academic side to carry any weight, she has to draw the line and say that the University of Michigan is not about isolating wealthy fans in luxury skyboxes and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a football stadium.
Maynard is rumored to be Coleman’s biggest supporter among the regents. She probably has supported the luxury box project thus far largely for Coleman’s sake.
But this project will further confuse the core themes of Coleman’s presidency and ensure that the University’s first female president will be remembered more as an institutional manager than a bold university president.
Jason Z. Pesick is a former editor in chief of The Michigan Daily. He currently works as a journalist in San Bernardino, California.