The world was quite different for U.S. universities in the spring of 2016, when Mary Sue Coleman became president of the Association of American Universities (AAU).
President Donald J. Trump’s election several months later brought challenges that the chemist and former president of the Universities of Iowa and Michigan didn’t anticipate when she took on the role leading the coalition of 62 top public and private research universities. “It’s been more chaotic than I would have expected,” says Coleman, 74.
Research funding has been the major source of upset, with wild swings between the immense cuts proposed in the president’s budgets and the increases finally passed by Congress. To make matters worse, many of the people in the president’s administration who science groups would normally rely on—such as the director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy—haven’t been appointed yet, 16 months into the new administration.
▸ Current position: President, Association of American Universities
▸ Previous positions: President, University of Michigan and University of Iowa
▸ Education: Ph.D., biochemistry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1969
▸ Residence: Washington, D.C.; she and her husband also have a home in Denver near her son and his family
▸ Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
▸ What chemistry taught her about being a university president:“You learn a way of thinking. You need some evidence and to test the evidence and be willing to discard a hypothesis if it is not supported by the evidence.”
Beyond advocating for steady research funding, AAU has tackled issues that have risen to the forefront at least in part because of Trump’s election, including immigration, free speech on campus, and the anti-intellectual sentiment that some feel helped push Trump into office.
Coleman has embraced her job of helping AAU universities deal with the current political environment, as well as the ongoing challenges facing higher education. “I love living in Washington and I love higher education, and this job is bringing those two together.”
Growing up in Iowa, Coleman “was fortunate all through high school to have teachers who stimulated my interest in science,” she remembers. She majored in chemistry at nearby Grinnell College and went on to get her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1969.
Her first faculty job was at the University of Kentucky’s medical school, where she researched enzymes related to immunology and cancer. She never really considered a career path other than academia. “There is so much freedom in an academic community because you can decide what you want to accomplish,” she says.
Coleman had been a faculty member for more than a decade when the university asked her to help develop a new cancer center, and her shift into administration began. Running an academic research lab “gives you all of the little pieces you need” to move into administration, she says. You manage budgets and people, and you learn how to develop long-term strategies for both research and funding, she says. “You have to figure out how to produce results, and you’re going to be accountable.”
After working as associate director at the University of Kentucky’s cancer center, Coleman moved to the University of North Carolina as a dean and, later, vice chancellor. In 1993, she took an appointment at the University of New Mexico as provost. By then, she’d chosen to give up her research. “I had loved being in the laboratory,” she says. “I also realized it was very interesting to have this other role where you were doing more across the university.”
In 1995, Coleman became president at the University of Iowa. She moved to the University of Michigan in 2002 to become president there and stayed until she stepped down in 2014.
Being a university president is “24 hours a day, full time. It’s a very high-stress job,” Coleman says.
A big part of the role is delegating. “You need to stay at one level to empower people below you to work on the more granular issues that the university has,” she says.
As president of AAU, Coleman brings together a diverse set of public and private research universities to learn from each about major issues in higher education. The scope of those problems includes improving diversity, revamping introductory science education, addressing sexual assault and harassment, and dealing with free speech issues on campuses.
The biggest challenge, however, is the fiscal climate, a problem that predates Coleman’s joining AAU. Most states have cut public universities’ funding between 20 and 30% in the past decade, something Coleman attributes to a combination of the economic recession and a wave of tax cuts. Unlike Medicare or prisons or K–12 education, higher education can raise funds through tuition or philanthropy, and state legislators rely on that when they cut funding for universities. Private universities haven’t had it much easier because their endowments declined during the recession and are just now recovering.
“A bit more rationality at the federal level could help,” Coleman says. AAU member universities all get significant funding from the federal government, and steady support there could smooth things. AAU can’t count on that happening anytime soon, though. Funding levels have become even less clear in the Trump era, with constant attacks on financial aid for needy students in addition to threats to research funding.
While many of these financial conflicts are also political, Coleman believes people need to think harder about the sources rather than just writing them off as an anti-intellectual wave sweeping the nation. “We are sort of consumed by the simple idea that people hate higher education or that they hate people who are educated,” she says. “I think it’s more complicated than that.”
People feeling the sting of greater income inequality and fewer opportunities target their wrath toward many institutions, not just universities, she explains. And even while under fire for not being inclusive, AAU member institutions have received record numbers of applications from students who want to attend the schools.
“There is a kind of disconnect,” she says. “There are clearly fractures that are occurring that, frankly, aren’t helped when there are all these arguments going on in Washington.”
What AAU institutions can do is make sure a college education remains an “engine for climbing the ladder of economic success,” Coleman says. “That’s what we aspire to be. We care deeply about whether or not we live up to that.”.