A new president with a full plate

As Mary Sue Coleman takes over the University of Michigan, she's set to defend affirmative action and highlight the school's public mission.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been a swift climb through the academic ranks to the pinnacle of higher education for Mary Sue Coleman, the new president of the University of Michigan.

She is the first woman to hold the prestigious post at the school, one of the nation's top public research institutions. But her gender is not something she dwells on. As she crisply points out, "Being president of a university is a hard job, equally tough for men and women. The pressures are no different."

Yet as Dr. Coleman and others acknowledge, it's becoming far less unusual for a woman to occupy the top jobs in higher education. About 22 percent of college presidents are women, the American Council on Education reported recently. That compares with just under 10 percent in 1986 and half that level a decade earlier. Three of the eight presidents of Ivy League universities are now women.

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There is, however, notably slower progress among the ranks of female faculty. Only half of women faculty hold tenured posts, compared with about 70 percent of men, little changed from decades ago.

"Is the faculty pipeline changing? Yes, it is," Coleman says. "When I look at my career, there are many more opportunities for women, and more women moving up the professorial ranks. It will take time, but that's happening slowly but surely, and I'm pleased to see it happen."

Coleman is moving to Ann Arbor from the top spot at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where she has been president since 1995. A biochemist by training, she has held a raft of prominent posts on higher-education boards and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in 1997.

At Michigan, she picks up the baton from Lee Bollinger, who has just moved to head Columbia University in New York. During his tenure, the University of Michigan became involved in an ardent defense of diversity on campus through two prominent lawsuits involving the use of race in admissions. One case involves undergraduate admissions, the other the law school. Both could well end up before the United States Supreme Court.

Coleman says she supports the school's use of race-conscious admissions policies. Central to both cases has been Michigan's careful research about the impact of student-body diversity on the quality of learning.

"The court cases will play out however they play out," Coleman says. "What I would like to do while this is all going on is to focus on why [having] a diverse student body, faculty, and staff is healthy and good – really show why it is good for the intellectual environment of a campus."

Her own strong views favoring diversity on campus were shaped in part by her time as a graduate student in the 1960s. "It was really a pretty homogeneous place, not many women on the faculty, mostly Caucasian," she recalls of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "It was a good education, and I was happy with it, but then 25 years later I had the opportunity to go back and join the administration there. By then, it was a far more diverse place, faculty and students. It was just a much more intellectually vibrant place, and I've taken that with me."

Like most university presidents, she's also gearing up for the fundraising responsibility. Much of the money will come from private donors. But she's going into the fray with an acute concern for maintaining the public-mission part of the university – a challenging task for big research universities as states cut funding.

"I've made the argument that investment by the states is crucial," she says. "Having a great public university is more than just the private good that comes to those who seek education there. We're a big resource. I want to make the case to the residents of Michigan that they have a jewel here that's worth supporting."

In exchange for her efforts, Coleman will be among the highest-paid public university presidents in the country, earning an annual package worth up to $650,000, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Though her own advanced academic training is in the sciences, Coleman says she deeply values the role of the liberal arts and plans to support them fully at Michigan.

"A solid grounding in liberal arts is so key to success in anything – learning how to think, write, be analytical," she says. "I was very pleased to see that a student and faculty commission at Michigan produced a report on undergraduate education. This deserves our attention."

Coleman identifies one other critical campus issue: alcohol abuse. A student died a few months before Coleman arrived at the University of Iowa. But the incident became a focal point for reform that she's been proud of – a concerted town-gown effort to reduce the amount of abuse by decreasing liquor sales off campus.

"We've worked hard to keep it a front-burner issue," she says. "Have we had success? Well, I think we've changed the public perception. People view it as a much more serious issue than before. This is a national problem and it has to be viewed as systemic. And we're going to have to keep working at it."

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