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President Mary Sue Coleman at ease and in charge

Dr. Coleman pic
Coleman greets Chris Hunter, a 6-foot-11-inch freshman from Gary, Ind., who will be on the basketball team. Coleman spoke to students and served ice cream during the Welcome Week event Thursday. Billy Schmidt, an assistant coach, looks on. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

U-M’s 13th president quickly is earning a reputation as someone who is both interesting and interested. Mary Sue Coleman enjoys meeting people and immediately makes them feel at ease with her engaging communication style.

On campus since early August, Coleman has met with many people already about a number of issues, including the life sciences, the Ed Martin investigation, the admissions lawsuits, the budget and executive leadership vacancies. Her packed agenda includes many activities where she will have a chance to get to know U-M students, faculty and staff.

Recently she met with the Record to talk about her first few weeks on campus. The following is a part of that interview.

LTG: Of course the first question, how is it going?

Coleman: I’m almost at the end of three weeks, and I feel like I’ve been here forever. It feels so comfortable. People have been very kind everywhere—not only people within the University, but when I go to stores and try to find my way around. It’s been a very nice transition. And we’re enjoying Ann Arbor. I think it was good to come a few weeks before school started so we could find our way. I’m still trying to imprint the map in my brain about streets, but I am learning some routes. I’m in pretty good shape.

LTG: Let’s talk about priorities. Even before arriving, you said that among the first priorities is filling vacant positions, and we see that steps have been taken.

Coleman: Yes, I appointed an interim executive vice president for medical affairs (EVPMA) so that we could keep moving forward because there are many issues that we have to deal with. We got our three search committees set up for development, chief financial officer and for the EVPMA. I’m working on the life sciences right now, and I am having discussions about the provost.

LTG: Any feeling about time frames for the searches?

Coleman: These committees need to be appropriately deliberate about what they are doing. Some may go longer than others. In my discussions with the chairs, I’ve said I’d like the committees to work with all deliberate speed. But I understand that they have to do their work. We will hope that maybe some things can happen this semester. If so, that will be great.

LTG: What about the Life Sciences Institute?

Coleman: I hope to make an announcement within the next few weeks, but we’re still doing a lot of internal work. Shortly after the semester starts we’ll make some progress there.

LTG: Where do you see us going, as far as our position in the life sciences?

Coleman: All of us believe that in this century research in the life sciences is going to make a huge difference in our lives because of what is made possible by the information that we have now. I think the correct investments were made. It’s important for Michigan, as one of the leading research universities in the nation, to have a major impact on that area. And this decision to create an institute was a way for the University to position itself extremely well.

LTG: You have inherited a number of initiatives, like the life sciences, that you have expressed a commitment to, but how will you make your mark on those projects?

Coleman: I think every single president has a different style and way of doing things. I imagine when people get used to me, and see how I work, that they will see that I have a style that is unique. I’m thrilled that there are so many areas of such distinction at Michigan. It is a remarkable University. I will be trying to further the aspirations that people have. I may have a slightly different way of shaping and fashioning some of the things that are moving forward at Michigan than another president would. But I think people will enjoy working with me, and I certainly look forward to working with everyone here.

LTG: We know your background with the sciences, but what would you say to the arts and humanities people about some of their interests, like the Miller Theatre?

Coleman: If people will go back and check my record, those in the humanities and arts at Iowa would say I have been supportive of those areas because I understand their importance to the quality of our lives. Universities can provide wonderful ways for us to explore ideas and celebrate the creativity of people through such things as performance. I hope people will be pleased with my approach.

LTG: What specifically can you say about the Miller Theatre?

Coleman: I need to step back in a lot of areas and really look at the plans for what we are doing. I am still at that stage with this project.

LTG: We’ve talked about those plans that already were underway, but is there anything you know at this very moment that you want to change?

Coleman: Sure, we’ve talked about some changes. I’ve begun to talk about things I might want to fashion a little bit differently, and I’ll have some ideas that we’ll roll out over time.

LTG: Any you can talk about at this time?

Coleman: Not yet, because I haven’t been able to complete the circles and consult with everyone. I think people will find that I am pretty consultative. I like to talk and fashion ideas. Then, I’ll say, “Well okay, why don’t we try X.” I think I make better decisions when I do that. I’m impressed that Michigan seems to have been a very open and communicative institution.

LTG: On the issue of the budget, this is a tough time. . .

Coleman: [The state of] Michigan is facing a budget deficit, and we don’t know quite yet how that will affect our educational funding. I think that we were treated very well up until now, considering the challenges that the state faces. But this has been a worry in many states, and it will be a worry in Michigan. This is going to be a tough year. We are going to look at every dollar we spend.

LTG: I occasionally read about the expectation of tighter fund availability from different research funding agencies. Yet, the University has enjoyed increasing success in securing research dollars. Do you predict that will continue?

Coleman: It’s really dependent on the agency. And you are absolutely right, how we do in research funding is tied to how much money is available out there, in part. As far as the areas in which we have done extremely well, their budgets are doing well. The NIH—the National Institutes of Health—is still showing robust growth in the research level, and our faculty and staff have been very good at garnering those funds. The National Science Foundation, another area where the University of Michigan has traditionally done extremely well, probably will have a big budget increase this year. Both of those bode well for us. There are other agencies whose budgets have been cut, so it may be a struggle for certain areas. But we have such good and competitive researchers here that I suspect they will be out there, and those that traditionally have done well will continue to do so.

LTG: You have had considerable interaction with students in the past. How will you be involved with Michigan students?

Coleman: I’ve already met with Sarah Boot, MSA president, and we’ve talked about some of the events I will be involved with—some of the opening celebrations we have, the convocation and certainly the vigil the students are planning for Sept. 11. Then I have a series of meetings set up where students can come talk to me in a more informal setting, a series of receptions, trying to get out and make myself accessible. I think it is important. I’ve really enjoyed interactions with students at Iowa, and hearing what they had to say. It’s important to talk with student leaders but it also is fun to just talk with students.

LTG: How will you interact with faculty and staff?

Coleman: What I am doing to get myself oriented to campus is trying to get invited to various faculty meetings and groups so that I can go and meet people in their departments. I also want to find some ways to go to different areas on campus, to various support units, to meet with staff. I also will tour the medical campus, and I’ll be spending time at Dearborn and Flint just meeting with students, faculty and staff.

LTG: Let’s talk briefly about the admissions lawsuits—I understand we are preparing our response for the Supreme Court.

Coleman: We are, but we still are waiting on the Circuit Court for the second opinion. I don’t want to be presumptive about what the Supreme Court will do, but we are preparing to go forward. I feel very good about the legal team. I feel confident and believe (if the Supreme Court should take the case) the outcome will be in our favor.

LTG: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Record audience?

Coleman: Just that I am very excited about being here. Every day I learn a little bit more about a new area of research or some innovative teaching or some new program that’s going on. It’s thrilling. I am energized every day. Everybody tells me that I just won’t believe what it’s like to be in Michigan Stadium. I am looking forward to that. I know that we have a field hockey team that won the national championship this year, and I am very proud of that. I am also very excited to learn about ice hockey.

LTG: That is new to you?

Coleman: That is new. [Laughs] That isn’t a sport that we had at Iowa, so I am excited.

LTG: Is it going to be tough on Homecoming, against Iowa?

Coleman: [Laughing] Oh well, yeah, but I said I will cheer for Iowa except when they are playing Michigan. Then I’ll cheer for Michigan. I think there a lot of Iowans coming to that game, too.

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