The University Record, June 3, 2002

New president shares thoughts about her new role

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Coleman demonstrates the Michigan map with her hand (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
“The regents have been helping me a lot so I want to tell you what I know so far,” said U-M’s newest president, holding up her open-palmed right hand. “This is Michigan,” joked Mary Sue Coleman, using the familiar hand-to-represent-the-Lower-Peninsula illustration. “This is Flint, here’s Dearborn and here’s Ann Arbor,” she said pointing to three spots at the base of her thumb.

U-M’s new leader then proceeded to pull products like Vernors ginger ale, a toy automobile, Sanders dessert topping and a Motown CD from a bag to demonstrate that she is familiar with the region’s many claims to fame. All kidding aside, Coleman later showed that she had done her homework about U-M as well, spouting student population figures, reciting recent triumphs for women’s athletics and acknowledging important current issues, from the development of the Life Sciences Initiative to the Ed Martin basketball scandal.

Announcing Coleman as the search committee’s finalist, Regent Laurence B. Deitch said it was her combination of skills, accomplishments and personality that won over the board and the 16-member search advisory committee. He said Coleman is viewed as warm, charming, smart and tough.

“There was a gut feeling that this was someone who would be comfortable to work with,” Deitch said. “Her record of accomplishment speaks for itself, but it gets down to that gut feeling.”

Gilbert Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs, echoed Deitch’s sentiment. “I think Dr. Coleman not only is an outstanding scientist, which will be very helpful given the initiatives on this campus, but she’s had broad experience as a university president,” Omenn said. “She has an effervescent personality and I think she will be wonderful.”

“We believe she will prove to be one of the great leaders in Michigan’s history,” Deitch said.

In naming Coleman, U-M regents already established one aspect of her place in history. She is the first woman president of the 185-year-old University. But Coleman doesn’t want gender to define her new role. “Being a university president is a very tough job and it’s a stressful job. And it’s equally stressful for men and women.” The new president prefers to have her appointment relay the message that young men and women “can aspire to anything they want to do.”

“This is a thrill of lifetime,” Coleman said. “I have to tell you when I called my 88-year-old mother yesterday—she lives in Colorado—she cried. And she understood what it meant to be named president of the University of Michigan, one of the very greatest public universities in the country.”

During a press conference that followed the special regents meeting, Coleman talked briefly about priorities for the University but stopped short of announcing major plans.

“It’s a little early to say anything about new directions,” she said. But she did offer insights about current programs at the University, including:

  • Life Sciences Initiative–“A huge opportunity for the university. I look forward to helping that come to fruition.”

  • Affirmative Action–“I have been very impressed to watch that from afar,” she said. And after hearing the Presidential Search Committee talk with passion about the importance of the issue, Coleman said her immediate thoughts were, “I want to join these people. I want to be with these people.”

  • Athletics–As a member of the NCAA board, Coleman is a huge supporter of athletic programs. She also is interested in getting to the truth in the Ed Martin situation and helping the University get the issue behind it as quickly as possible.

  • Fundraising–“I love fundraising. I can think of no better cause to ask money for than public higher education.”

  • Leadership–Filling open U-M positions, including provost, chief financial officer, executive vice president for medical affairs, and vice president of development, is a priority.

  • Student relations–Coleman says she enjoys interaction with students. At the University of Iowa, she instituted “fireside chats” where 500 students were invited to come talk about whatever was on their minds. Although only about 35 showed up on average, Coleman says these meetings were great opportunities to hear about a host of student issues.

  • Alumni relations–“I think we learn a lot from alumni and I like to listen to their voices.” Coleman said it is important to begin recruiting students for the Alumni Association while they are still enrolled at the University.