I think one of the reasons that I’ve been successful is that I’ve
always promoted opportunity for everybody. Young men in science
need just as much support as young women because it’s tough. It’s
a tough environment, and it’s a highly competitive environment.
We need to be nurturing everybody in the nation who wants to go
You were a chemistry major at a liberal arts college. What are
your thoughts on the importance of liberal arts?
Even though I was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, I took art
courses. I loved learning about history and literature. I think the critical thinking skills I learned from a liberal arts institution have served
me extraordinarily well.
You were president at the University of Michigan from 2002
through 2014 at a difficult time for the state, economically. How
did you navigate that and help the campus community?
Michigan went into the Great Recession earlier than most other
states and had a far more negative experience. It was a very, very
difficult time. Unlike many public universities, the University of
Michigan had the advantage of a robust culture of philanthropy. I
activated it in a way that I think was really in a crisis mode, but I was
also very strategic. This was a time when most universities stopped
hiring great faculty, but I put aside money for hiring, which enabled
us to hire several hundred additional faculty members. We landed
the best people because nobody else was hiring. I thought, if you’re
going to spend money, spend it where it’s going to make a difference,
and it made a huge difference.
As president of the Association of American Universities,
you are familiar with the issues facing college campuses across
the country. What are the biggest challenges facing universities
Affordability and access are always big issues for students. I think a
lot more cooperation among institutions could be helpful. Students
might need to start their college career at a community college and
then transfer. We must also work more vigorously on communicating
the value of higher education.
In 2010, you were asked by Secretary of Commerce Gary
Locke to cochair the National Advisory Council on Innovation
and Entrepreneurship. And then in 2011, President Barack
Obama asked you to help launch the Advanced Manufacturing
Partnership. What did you do in those roles?
As you may recall, those were initiatives of the Obama administration
and the Department of Commerce during the Great Recession, when
it was important to highlight a rebirth of American manufacturing. It
was important for us to talk about key issues, like why America should
care about manufacturing and whether it was bad for our nation to
outsource advanced manufacturing to the world. We were trying to
give advice, both to the administration and to Gary Locke, about what
commerce could do to help stimulate innovation. I was thrilled to be
part of it.
One of the things you said that has always stuck with me is
“talent is everywhere.” You’ve long promoted the educational
value of diverse perspectives in the classroom and also within the
academic community. Why is that such an important issue for you?
I think part of it has to do with the time I spent growing up in the
South and realizing inequities that existed in opportunities for young
people. I have always felt like access to education is a key factor in
creating a democratic society. You need to have an educated populace — I don’t think ignorance and democracy go hand in hand very
well. And so I’ve just cared a lot about student access. Part of student
access involves ensuring students can afford college. That’s why we
had to raise so much money at Michigan through philanthropy so
that we could recruit students from everywhere.
What advice do you have for young people moving into
higher education or their careers?
I encourage young people to avail themselves of all the educational
opportunities that they have because I believe that the more education you have, the more opportunities and options you have in your
life. That’s why I’m so appalled by the pundits who declare you don’t
need to go to college. Is that what they really want for their own children? And so, I tell young people, I hope you love education. I hope
you have the advantage of being in an environment where you have
excellent teachers and where people can get you excited. There is a
huge and wonderful world out there, and you don’t want to be in a
position where you don’t know what you don’t know.
There are so many challenges in the world today. What keeps
you up at night?
I worry about the skepticism about facts, and I worry that some
people don’t believe evidence. I worry about people who don’t un-
derstand that climate change is the future. It’s happening now, and
it’s based on solid scientific research and scientific discovery. If we
lose the ability as a nation to rely on those who are discovering new
information, that is going to affect us. ◆ S O
Mary Sue Coleman displays her 1961 Science Talent Search
project, “Studies in Bacterial Mutation.”