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When Mary Sue Coleman stepped down as University of Michigan president two years ago, she had devoted 45 years to higher education. Then she started traveling.

But Coleman wasn’t relaxing. Instead, she was talking to university officials across the country about the state of public higher education. Her work resulted in a series of reports, the Lincoln Project, which recommended ways to shore up public research universities and boost student achievement.

Coleman’s partner on the project, Bob Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, was struck by her dedication. Even in retirement, she toiled late into the evening on reports, sometimes emailing them after midnight.

“It was very impressive to have a partner who was willing to work so hard and was so committed to it,” Birgeneau said.

Coleman, 72, had planned to volunteer in her retirement but never expected to be advocating for higher education from Washington, D.C., where she now lives with her husband.

But that’s what she’s doing as president of the Association of American Universities. Coleman, who began her full-time job in June, heads a higher education organization that represents 60 public and private research universities in the U.S. and two in Canada.

“A couple of years ago, if someone would have asked me, ‘Do you want to be doing this?’ I would have said, ‘No,’” she said. “It was not a possibility. But it’s been a lot of fun.”

Some of Coleman’s colleagues at UM were not surprised when they heard she was taking on this new role at the AAU, an invitation-only organization that represents just two Michigan schools: UM and Michigan State University.

“Many of us who knew her during her tenure thought, of course, that’s just the right spot for her,” said Cynthia Wilbanks, UM vice president of government relations. “She still has enormous energy. Her passion was expressed in a lot of ways when she was here. And her passion for higher education was really evident.”

Charles Eisendrath, 75, who retired earlier this year as the longtime director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows at UM, said he never expected Coleman to be a “lie-in-a-bed-at-home couch potato.”

“Mary Sue has a lifelong reputation as a doer,” Eisendrath said. “In addition to being the previous president of the university, she also served on boards like the Knight Foundation board and was extremely conscientious. She likes to be part of things, and she is very good at it, as someone who adds a perspective that hasn’t been there before.”

Her move to the AAU makes perfect sense, he said: “That is the itch she wanted to scratch.”

Some say it will be interesting to see Coleman in this role since the AAU is essentially a club of university presidents, where she will essentially report to 62 colleagues.

“University presidents tend to resist leadership, since they are leaders themselves,” former UM President James Duderstadt said. “Mary Sue Coleman has a reputation as a highly respected and leading university president. But she is a leader among many who are not used to being led.”

Coleman was one of the nation’s most respected university presidents as the top official at UM from 2002-14 and at the University of Iowa from 1995-2002.

When she stepped down from UM, she had spent more than half of her life in higher education, serving as an academic and administrator. At the time, she was 70 but hinted that she would be working on some big projects and serving on a few national boards.

She delivered on her promises, and became a board member for the Mayo Clinic Foundation, the Society for Science & the Public and the Kavli Foundation, which advances science in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics.

She is particularly proud of the work she did on the Lincoln Project, published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The reports produced by the project recommended ways to counteract state funding cuts to public universities and make it easier for students to enroll and pay for college.

“We need to recognize there is a new compact,” Coleman said. “It is unrealistic to assume that states can go back to the kind of funding that we were doing 20 or 30 years ago because there are other pressures in state budgets like Medicaid, prisons and K-12.

“We are recommending that states figure out a long-term plan ... with alliances with the business community, federal government and philanthropic community.”

A biochemist by training, Coleman has always encouraged students to embrace fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

But now she’s advocating from a national stage as president of AAU, which has made STEM one its top priorities along with other issues in higher education, such as funding, research and even who will lead the nation over the next four years.

Helping teachers across the country use the latest tools to make science exciting is one of the organization’s latest projects.

“When we look at just the projections about the scientists that are going to be needed in the future in the next 10-20 years, it’s pretty apparent we are underproducing in the U.S.,” said Coleman. “We attract students internationally, which is terrific.

“But it’s important that we engage our own domestic students and particularly students who may have not have participated in the past from different racial and ethnic groups, and students who come from lower-income backgrounds who may not understand the opportunities in the science and technology fields.”

The AAU is nonpartisan, making Coleman unable to support one candidate over another, but she indicated she appreciated some of the positions taken by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.

“We’re still examining the candidates’ plans for higher education,” Coleman said. “We appreciate Secretary Clinton’s intention to invest in science and her support for immigration reforms to help the U.S. attract and retain the best talent.”

Coleman was UM’s first female president and was its fourth-longest serving president when she retired. She was the among the top-earning presidents in the nation, earning just under $1 million a year.

AAU is a private organization; Coleman’s current salary is unavailable.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon, who is chairwoman of the AAU board, wasn’t surprised when former AAU President Hunter R. Rawlings III retired and Coleman’s name rose to the top of the list to succeed him.

“Mary Sue was an extraordinary leader at the University of Michigan and very well-respected among her AAU colleagues,” Simon said. “It’s great to have a leader in the AAU who understands the plight of the public research universities so well.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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