U-M Clip No. 1


 

 

Coleman earned respect in Iowa

 
New U-M president is known for 'connecting in critical ways'

 

By Rob Hoffman
News Staff Reporter

T
he Ann Arbor News
May 31, 2002


IOWA CITY, IOWA - Her resumé says that newly appointed University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman is a biochemist, a scientist with a Ph.D. who knows the ins and outs of molecular reactions.

Around the University of Iowa, where the 58-year-old Coleman has served as president for the last seven years, she is known for so much more than that.

Colleagues and friends know her as a tireless booster for the 29,000-student school, whether she is attending a Hawkeyes women's basketball game, touting the U-of-I's latest accomplishment in frequent campus-wide e-mails, donating a $40,000 raise to the school's latest fund-raising campaign or lobbying in Des Moines to vigorously fight the latest round of emergency budget cuts to Iowa's three public universities.

"She's one of the best PR people we've ever had," said Rep. Mary Mascher , D-Iowa City. "Not only for higher education at the University of Iowa but higher education throughout the state."

"It's going to be a real loss here," said state Sen. Don Redfern, R-Cedar Falls, co-chairman of the education appropriations subcommittee, which oversees the budget of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. "She's done an excellent job."

Iowa professors know her as someone who solicited their advice, appreciated their efforts and did what she could to bolster their careers.

"She's able to connect with the people of Iowa in very critical ways," said former UI faculty president Amitava Bhattacharjee, who regularly met with Coleman despite the purely advisory nature of his group. "She sought our opinions and listened to us."

"If you were productive at the University of Iowa, you had a friend in her," said journalism professor Stephen Bloom. "If you were coasting, deadwood and doing nothing with your career, then she had nothing to do with you."

An involved citizen
Members of the Iowa City community know her as an involved citizen, whether the Iowa-born Coleman was stopping by for an author's reading at a local downtown bookstore, helping out at a charity dance-athon or donating $5,000 of her own money to start a restoration drive the day the gold dome of the Old Capitol building, the campus icon, was destroyed by fire last November.

"She fit right in," said Jim Harris, owner of the Prairie Lights bookstore. "I would call her a small-town girl. There's nothing negative about that at all. She's just a genuine person."

Talk to Coleman and you'll understand why she does all this: She believes the essential part of her job is to relate to people everywhere she goes and absorb whatever she can from them. She recalls how her differing experience at the University of North Carolina, first as a student in the early 1960s then as associate provost from 1990-1992, opened her eyes to the need for diversity and affirmative action. And how the many first-generation college students she encountered at the University of New Mexico, where she was provost 1993-1995, made her appreciate how important it was to limit tuition increases at public universities.

"Oftentimes, what the president has to do is to get the great ideas from people and then try to make them happen: pool together the resources, do the cajoling, do the talking to the legislature, whatever it takes to sort of make the hopes and dreams of the campus community come alive," Coleman said. "That's what I would (hope) people would think I have done here (at UI) and would hope to be able to do at Michigan."

Spend any time in Iowa City, a town of 60,000 in eastern part of the state, and stories about the woman known simply as "Mary Sue" flow. (One local newspaper headline on Thursday: "Ann Arbor for Mary Sue")

Like the time several African-American dental students received racist e-mails and threats. Coleman and former school president Willard "Sandy" Boyd led a "Walk the Walk" community march to protest the missives. Then, when it was revealed a fellow African-American student had been the perpetrator of the threats, she sent out a calming e-mail to the students and faculty members. "Let us take it as a wake-up call that reminds us that we should judge each other as individuals (and) by the content of our character."

Or, shortly after Bloom penned the highly acclaimed book "Postville," about the culture clash between ultra-Orthodox Jews and residents of a tiny Iowa town, how she quickly responded personally to a letter from a Cornell College religion professor demanding that the journalism professor be fired.

"While I understand that Professor Bloom's work is controversial and apparently quite offensive to you and others... University faculty enjoy broad academic freedom in their research and writing activities," she stated.

Clashes with an activist
Not all of the stories about Coleman are glowing, however.

Matthew Killmeier, a graduate teaching assistant in the journalism school, clashed with Coleman and her administrators on two different occasions: Once during successful efforts to form a union for graduate teaching assistants six years ago and more recently as one of the chief organizers of the Students Against Sweatshops group, which called for the school to terminate apparel contracts with companies that used poorly paid overseas workers to manufacture goods.

In 1996, Coleman fought the organizing effort, saying it would ruin existing relationships between assistants and their professors. Four years later, during a campaign that ultimately culminated with sweatshop protesters taking over Coleman's office, Killmeier said Coleman stalled and was "quite evasive" when his group pressed the school to sign a code of conduct and resign from a monitoring group that activists claimed was too close to the apparel companies.

"A lot of it left a bad taste in my mouth in regards to Coleman," he said. "She's very smooth. She's very articulate. She's very good at handling an audience."

Some of Coleman's messages, however, have not quite reached her intended audience. And that may have led to her decision to leave her home state, some believe.

Over the last year, Coleman battled furiously to prevent $32.1 million in reduced state funding to her school, a move instituted by the legislature after a sudden downturn in state tax revenues.

"The history of public funding for higher education in Iowa has, overall, been one of staunch support," she said in her convocation speech on Sept. 25, an address some consider her best. "But I worry now that we are experiencing a fundamental shift."

Rep. Mascher said Coleman's frustration over the cutbacks could be the reason why she unhesitatingly accepted Michigan's offer a few days ago, after years of rejecting similar overtures.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the budget cuts have contributed to this," she said. "We think we're going to lose all three presidents (of the state's major universities) before this is over."

At a press conference Thursday, Coleman denied that the funding battles forced her to look elsewhere. "I don't want anyone to think that somehow I'm discouraged and that's why I'm leaving. That isn't true."

Instead, Coleman said in an interview after the press conference, it was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead one of the nation's top public universities that ultimately drove her east.

"I mean I was happy here," she said wistfully. "There had to be a rationale. And Michigan was that rationale."

Boyd, one of Coleman's predecessors, has no doubt that Coleman will be successful. During Boyd's time in office, from 1969 to 1981, he became friends with Michigan's-then president Robben Fleming. Coleman, Boyd said, shares many of Fleming's leadership qualities.

"She'll be superb," Boyd said. "She's done an outstanding job here."

Rob Hoffman can be reached at (734) 994-6814 or rhoffman@annarbornews.com.