September 27, 2012 at 1:00 am

The Mary Sue difference

President strives to sustain academic excellence and affordability at U-M

I found that putting issues on the table and making people feel comfortable, whether they agree or disagree, and to state their case and to make their argument, that we get better decisions in the end, says Mary Sue Coleman, U-M president and the colleges chief fundraiser, about her consensus-building management style. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman sat and waited. On this morning, several years ago, she was in Los Angeles, scheduled to meet a wealthy individual for breakfast to discuss a potential donation to the university.

Nearly an hour passed, and the donor still hadn't arrived, but Coleman didn't leave.

Instead, she called the donor and asked him if she had scheduled the meeting for the wrong time.

The donor had merely forgotten about the meeting. He soon met with Coleman and has since made several multimillion-dollar donations to the university.

"It would've been a tremendously missed opportunity if she hadn't done that," said Rich Rogel, a University of Michigan supporter who chaired the university's Michigan Difference campaign, which raised more than $3 billion for the university, and was at the meeting with Coleman.

One of Coleman's chief roles as president of the university is to fundraise, and she'll go anywhere — from Michigan Stadium to Shanghai — to solicit donations for U-M. Her knack for it has helped her connect with donors and request their support for the university, leaders say.

"Mary Sue Coleman is one of the most effective presidents in the country, by far, in fundraising," said Jerry May, the university's vice president for development, who said he has worked with seven university presidents at different institutions over the course of his three-decade career.

While development may be one of Coleman's strong suits, interviews with nearly a dozen university officials and higher education experts offer a portrait of a pragmatic consensus-builder, who has provided the University of Michigan with stability and vision during an era of tumult and uncertainty for higher education as a whole.

While the state government's support of all of Michigan's public universities has been lessening for decades, there's been a precipitous drop in funding since 2002 — $166 million less in inflation-adjusted dollars — when Coleman assumed the presidency in Ann Arbor.

As a result, an increase in support from private donors, together with extensive cost reductions and tuition hikes, have been some of the ways U-M has been able to grow, and even flourish, over the past decade while many of its peer institutions have been hampered by budget cuts and battles over tuition.

And Coleman, the university's first female president, has contributed to the sense of stability, providing the school with a guiding vision that has helped it maintain its strength.

"You can't be shy in this business," Coleman said in an interview.

A scientific approach

Coleman likes to hear as many relevant opinions about an issue as she can before she makes a decision, and she holds a weekly meeting with the university's executive officers to discuss the latest issues facing the institution, university officials who work closely with her say.

A biochemist by trade, Coleman takes a scientific, fact-based, approach. If a dean or unit head wants to undertake a project, if they make a case for why it's feasible, she'll typically sign off on it. But once she makes up her mind about something, she uses the same tactic she directs at donors to convince administrators and other university officials that her plan is what's best.

"I found that putting issues on the table and making people feel comfortable, whether they agree or disagree, and to state their case and to make their argument, that we get better decisions in the end," Coleman said. "We have a group that comes from different perspectives and different backgrounds, and I think that's a terrific strength of Michigan that we can navigate a path that's successful for the university."

In 2006, for instance, the board of regents was fiercely divided over whether to approve major renovations to Michigan Stadium, which included luxury boxes. Laurence Deitch, D-Bingham Farms, was one of the regents who vocally opposed the skyboxes throughout the process, but he said Coleman worked hard to try and convince him otherwise.

The University of Iowa, where Coleman served as president before coming to Ann Arbor, had recently undertaken a similar project to its iconic stadium, and those renovations were widely praised.

"She asked me if I wanted to go out to Iowa to see how nice it was," Deitch said. "She never gave up."

Deitch's mind wasn't changed, but Coleman's prodding ended up convincing other regents that the project was worthwhile. Still, the large-scale construction — such as the stadium expansion, the $754 million C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and several new and renovated residence halls — create an image that U-M's financial footing is stronger than it actually is.

Academic enterprise

Michigan is a highly decentralized institution, and units outside the academic focus of the university, such as the athletic department, the University of Michigan Health System and University Housing, generate their own revenue and finance their own projects.

That's not to say the academic enterprise hasn't grown, as the university's endowment has more than doubled and research expenditures have topped $1 billion annually, the most spent by any public university in the country. In 2009, it spent more than $100 million to purchase the former Pfizer research site near its North Campus. Coleman has also led an expansion of U-M's international partnerships, along with an increased focus on entrepreneurship and sustainability.

So while academic operations have expanded, due to rising costs and ever-lessening public financing, U-M has had to fight to maintain its academic excellence while limiting the costs it passes on to students in the form of tuition increases.

Provost Philip Hanlon is quick to point out that U-M reduced and reallocated nearly $235 million in costs over the past decade, and expects to eliminate another $120 million in costs by 2017. "We are so much more lean and efficient than we were 10 years ago," Hanlon said. "There is a limit I'm sure we'll reach, but one thing that concerns me is that the public perception remains stubbornly the opposite."

And it's getting more expensive for students. In fall 2002, a Michigan resident starting freshman year in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts had to pay $7,298 for a full academic year. A student starting school in Ann Arbor this year pays $12,800.

The increase for out-of-state and international students has been even greater.

But U-M officials all note that the amount of need-based financial aid has also multiplied. This year, the university will offer $144.8 million in need-based aid to students, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in private aid.

With a new president expected to take over in 2014, the university is at a crossroads. One of Coleman's final initiatives will be to lay the groundwork for the university's capital campaign, which is expected to launch late next year.

No matter what though, U-M's new president will be expected to fight the same fights Coleman has over maintaining the university's high academic standards and its commitment to public access, because those challenges certainly aren't going away.