Leadership starts with a good team

Mary Sue Coleman, the first woman President of the University of Michigan, shares her secrets of success and her plans for India

EDU: You were the first female President of the University of Michigan as well as Iowa besides being one of the longest serving Presidents. What was it that got you here? What would your advice be to women in higher education aspiring to become leaders?

Mary Sue Coleman: Certainly in my lifetime and over the span of my career in higher education, I have seen many more women take leadership roles. It was probably thirty years ago that the US decided that we had to make it more equitable for women entering professions like law and medicine and others that had been previously limited to men. This has been a growing movement in the United States and now there are many programmes to help young women advance in their career and hone both scholarly and administrative talent. It has been extraordinarily positive because theres talent everywhere.

Now it isnt perfect and I dont say that there are not still inequities but I do think it is much better. Today over 20 to 30 per cent of the University Presidents are women and a much higher percentage of women are Provosts and Deans. It starts at the department level with you becoming the chair of the department, getting and really seeking administrative experiences.

So my advice to women would be to actively seek out administrative roles and prepare for them if they are interested in such roles. You cant just wait for these roles to come to you. Many US universities have instituted mentorship programmes to advise young women on their careers. Policy interventions like these are very important and I dont think things will change without those interventions.

As far as my story goes, I am a scientist and I had a long career as a biochemist when I ran a research laboratory. I actually think that those experiences helped me enormously in rising through the ranks to first be a Dean and then a Vice Chancellor and a President.


You came in as the President at a time in 2002 when Michigan was into its worst economic downturns and you are leaving at a time when U-M is ranked 12th globally and has the largest research budget in US for a public university. What were the steps you took that helped the University gain this status?

When I came in to Michigan, I was prepared for the prospect of economic austerity. I dont think I understood at that time how severe it would be, but the state of Iowa had also begun to have some economic problems so I already had some experience with making strategic decisions about what to cut in order to preserve the academic core. But by the time I came to Michigan it became much more severe.Theres no one piece but a coming together of several pieces that really allowed us to thrive.

First of all I had a very good team of smart people around me. It is an absolute must to have people that are the best at what they do at every single position.The second piece was a concentration on cost saving, and it really helped that I had that team which really understood how to find efficiencies in the operations of the university that are not academic core. We were able to save a lot of money by simply making services like cleaning buildings, more efficient. We got better purchasing contracts and changed the way we do our operations.We have taken out about 230 million dollars from the recurring costs of the basic operations simply by examining everything we did and doing it better and more efficiently. During this time we have had no faculty layoffs or furloughs. We have in fact been able to give small increases in faculty salaries.

The third piece that helped us is ramping up our philanthropy. We have a tremendous philanthropy tradition and so were able to have a hugely successful capital campaign. The fourth piece was working at making our research enterprise flourish. We streamlined many of our policies for faculty to get grants. Our interactions with the industry and companies also changed. We created a business engagement centre, a one-stop-shop that was extremely helpful in getting many more grants and contracts from companies.

The fifth piece was around admitting out of state students who pay higher tuition. Thanks to the way our state was changing we had a different tuition rate for in state and out of state students. The in state population of high school graduates is going down quite precipitously so we were able to admit more out of state students who pay much higher tuition.

Our success is a result of these pieces coming together. We were able to provide modest tuition increases and more financial aid. Philanthropy stepped up, the research enterprise flourished, cost saving strategies became more aggressive, interactions with companies to bring in more resources to the university increased and so we were able to provide modest tuition increases even as financial aid increased.

You are regarded as one of the most successful fundraisers. You along with your husband have contributed over $1.79 million to university funds. What are the attributes that makes fundraising campaign successful? What would your advice be to universities looking to raise funds?

Both my husband and I were really transformed by our experiences as students going abroad and experiencing the world. We were in Iowa, a small western state and hadnt seen the rest of the world. But we were lucky because our parents could afford to send us abroad. My husband became a Latin Americanist and I became a biochemist. We just understood so much more about the world by being able to go abroad. Those experiences were so important in our lives that we wanted to do something to help students whose parents might not be able to afford to send them abroad. Thats the reason for my personal interest in promoting global education.

Fundraising is also a very big part of my job. I probably spend almost half of my time in fundraising. Its much more subtle than going to people that youve never met and asking them for money. You have to develop relationships, build confidence and present a vision that gets people excited about something significant that they can do to support students, build a programmme or even a new building. These are long relationships.

Most of the people that give a lot of money to the university have been known to me for years and years and have developed a friendship and trust. As a university you have to demonstrate to people that you will be good stewards of their moneythat you will be responsible and invest it well and that you will create the programmes. Its a combination of the two and at the University of Michigan weve built a lot of trust with our donors over many years and I think thats why we are so successful.

U-M is known for its interdisciplinary richness. How should a university work at improving interdisciplinary interactions?

You have to be quite directed in providing a mechanism and incentives for people to become more interdisciplinary.We have indeed become much more interdisciplinary during my tenure. We started out by offering money to faculty for them to develop and run courses that would be interdisciplinary. But they had to compete for getting this money and we picked the ones that were the best. Faculty also had to compete for positions that were interdisciplinary and again it was incentives all along the way. We provided research funding for interdisciplinary projects as well as for teaching projects. It has worked quite well for us over the last decade.

In order for it to work you have to invest, you have to have a plan and you have to let faculty understand how this plan will enrich their lives. I think most people at Michigan now will say that it has worked.


How do you plan your collaborations? How did this trip to India come about?

We have long term partnerships across Africa, in China and Brazil. We are just beginning our relationships inBrazil. Our relationship with India goes back several years as we have had connections at the faculty level and through the Centre for South Asian Studies.

However, planning for these trips at the administrative level began about a year and a half ago. To plan these trips one of the things we do is to gauge faculty interest and assess where the best opportunities are. We do many advance visits and make sure that the faculty get together and that we have a very good plan to make our partnerships substantive.

So thats how this visit developed and I am very optimistic that even though I am stepping down these relationships will continue to be very robust. We have over 10 MoUs in India and this time we signed four, NCAER, AIIMS, Ashoka and DU.


Is there a bent towards liberal arts in the kind of collaborations you are looking at?

Not necessarily though we believe deeply in the liberal arts and I mean not just the humanities but also the sciences; the liberal arts writ large. We absolutely believe that this is one way to educate students to be prepared for a future thats very uncertain because we do not know what the jobs are going to be for the future so we want to teach students how to think, be critical and flexible and how to solve problems.

But we are not limited to liberal arts because with AIIMs we are very interested in its trauma centre and we want our students to have the opportunity to come here. They are just doing miracles at AIIMs and we would like our students to have that experience. Wed also like to have students from AIIMs coming to Michigan. We want it to be both ways. It has to be mutually interesting. If its just one way it wont work.

So our interest is not limited and we have tried to pick the places that we think can have the most robust collaborations.

We dont sign a lot of MOUs but once we are in we are all in. Our goal is to do those that are going to be beneficial for both parties where we have faculty interest and student interest. Thats why we have picked the ones that we have

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