Adieu, Mary Sue! A Critical Look at the Coleman Legacy

President Mary Sue Coleman officially passed the scepter to her successor Mark Schlissel on July 31st, and members of the U-M community have taken time to reflect, and heap praise, on her tenure as the University’s fearless leader. This official 7-minute video neatly sums up the story of “the amazing progress our university has made during Mary Sue Coleman’s 12 years as president.” SUM takes a less glowing view of her legacy, perhaps unsurprisingly—earlier this year a group of student organizations, including SUM, published an open letter to President-elect Schlissel taking stock of some of the problems 12 years under Coleman have left us. While Mary Sue packs her bags and prepares to return to the board seats she holds at Johnson & Johnson and the Meredith Corporation, we’d like to break down a few of the claims the video makes.

“Mary Sue’s role in entrepreneurship and commercialization cannot be overstated.”

We couldn’t say it better ourselves! According to Coleman’s administration, not only should education be thought of as an investment, rather than a social good, education ought to be business, through well-funded student entrepreneurship initiatives. Many of these initiatives foreground social goals, but even these serve to privilege enterprise over public infrastructure. When the University acquired the North Campus Research Complex from Pfizer in 2009, Coleman gave us her vision of the research university as corporate R&D department. With her vaunted fundraising chops and strong business background, she built an endowment capable of going toe-to-toe with any Wall Street hedge fund.

“Mary Sue has done an enormously wonderful job of transforming the Michigan campus in her 12 years.”

Indeed, former Michigan CFO and current University of Phoenix president Slottow, the construction boom President Coleman has presided over represents the largest increase in University bond debt in its history. It was spent on such projects as the glitzy but unpopular East Quad renovations and the $1000/month, seven-to-a-suite Munger “grad student dorms” presently under construction. Currently, the University owes $1.2 billion, primarily in construction bonds, and has spent an average of over $500 million per year for the last decade. All of that will have to be paid back with future students’ tuition—it’s no coincidence that in-state tuition has gone up 71% during her tenure. When the average student graduates with more than $30,000 in debt, are these projects really about “mak[ing] them most successful”?

“President Mary Sue Coleman has been steadfast around issues of diversity. She’s never lost sight of it, even when it has gotten harder and harder.”

As the shot of Coleman at the steps of the Supreme Court implies, “harder and harder” refers to the University’s successful defense in Grutter v. Bollinger and subsequent state affirmative action ban—don’t blame the administration if the proportion of underrepresented minority students fell steadily until the last two years of Coleman’s presidency, our hands were tied. But it’s not clear if that steadfastness in the courtroom carried over into policies beyond affirmative action—that proportion peaked in 1996 (around 14%), and was already in decline when Prop 2 was enacted in 2006. There are no excuses—the University of Michigan has systemic problems with diversity, and in 12 years it seems they haven’t changed.

“Because of Mary Sue Coleman, we have an organization called Voices of the Staff.”

Coleman led the University through multiple attacks on workers’ wages and benefits, while administrative pay has ballooned. To quote her earlier this year: “Everybody in this institution is working very hard, and some of my staff who don’t get paid very much are working harder than anybody else.” In addition to suppressing pay, she and the Regents have championed corporate-styled restructurings like this year’s “Administrative Services Transformation”. Under AST, over 300 departmental staff are being forced to reapply for their jobs, now in an off-campus office building. Not only were staff silenced when AST was announced—Coleman’s administration ignored the voices of students and faculty as well. Let’s not mistake easily-disregarded “sounding boards” for real democratic governance at U-M. Coleman was a poor friend to University workers.


This is our favorite idea in the video, that Coleman and the neoliberal vision of the University she presided over are wrapped up in some sort of indelible magic, a magic which perhaps justifies her undemocratic style of governance and exorbitant salary (a cool $1,037,357 including bonuses in 2013, all on top of her corporate income and options). That magic might also might help explain her Reaganesque immunity to criticism on campus. It’s imperative that we hold our new President and the Board of Regents accountable for their policies, or else see Coleman’s model of the corporate university fully supplant Michigan’s public mission. Because as much as we hate to rain on this parade, it’s important to be frank about where the Coleman presidency has led us—an increasingly exclusive and corporatized campus where public education seems like an afterthought. But hey, at least we got free bagels.

*nods to Cube*