President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman on stepping up, taking chances, and encouraging women to lead

In honor of Women’s History Month, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan from 2002–2014, joined Michigan Minds to discuss what it was like to be the “first female” in a variety of leadership roles, defining moments in her career, and her advice for young women.


Prior to serving as president of U-M, Coleman was the first female president of the University of Iowa. The holder of a PhD in biochemistry, she also served as vice chancellor for research and graduate education at the University of North Carolina, and provost at the University of New Mexico. Following her tenure at U-M, Coleman became president of the Association of American Universities.

“I was always very careful in my public statements to make it clear that leading an organization, being a university president, is a very tough job. It’s equally tough for men and women; there really isn’t any difference. I approached my job and my leadership in the same way that I thought my male colleagues would do it. Everybody brings different strengths to their leadership style,” she says.

Coleman has many fond memories and proud moments from her tenure at U-M. She reflects on five achievements specifically: acquiring the North Campus Research Complex, initiating more economic development initiatives, focusing on residential life initiatives and renovating the residence halls, increasing junior faculty hiring, and establishing a partnership with Google to digitize the university’s collection—more than seven million volumes.

As president of the AAU, Coleman was able to use her experience as a university president to commiserate with university presidents and chancellors. After serving for four years, she retired in 2020, but still sees the impacts of the pandemic on learners and outlines a few things the pandemic has demonstrated.

“The first is the need and the value of science in order to give us good information, to have experts who can help us through a difficult time like a pandemic. The second thing we’ve learned is the limitations of online education. I think it’s pretty clear: we hear it all the time, that students do not want to sit in front of a computer all day. They really want to be on campus,” she says, adding that rather than pushing people online, she thinks the pandemic will make everyone appreciate the Michigan experience more.

“The third thing we’ve learned through this tough time is the urgent need to address the racial injustices in our country and that we need to find a way to listen to a lot of voices and hear what they have to say as we forge our path for the future.”

March is Women’s History Month, so Coleman also talks about women who have inspired her, including her mother, Margaret Harvin Wilson, and biochemist Mary Ellen Jones, with whom she did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina. Coleman also talks about how the pandemic has highlighted – and amplified – the challenges faced by women who are juggling the demands of a career and raising a family, including the work of at-home schooling.

“This is just extraordinarily difficult. Period,” she says. “It’s always trying to reconcile wanting to have a great career, being dedicated to that career, and also making sure that you are dedicated to your children and their wellbeing.”

Coleman also discusses how satisfying it is to have had leadership roles, where she was helping advance a department, school, or university, and hopes all women who want to serve in leadership have an opportunity to do so.

“I just encourage more women to step up, to take the chance, to also have more medical school administrators, current administrators, say, ‘What can we do to help encourage women to take on some of these leadership roles?’”

For women who are exploring a new opportunity or environment, her advice is to listen and learn.

“People really want to know they’ve been heard…[that] I’ve listened to them [and] evaluated their ideas. For me, that was always a successful strategy and it’s a leadership style that I’ve used in every single position I’ve ever been in, and it’s worked for me.”

Listen to the full episode


This interview was conducted by Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media and public engagement