Zayed University: Women as Global Leaders Conference
March 10, 2008
I’ve come to Dubai to tell you about a phone call.
A businessman contacted the news office of the University of Michigan, and said he wanted to place an advertisement in our faculty and staff newspaper.
The editor spoke with him, and after hearing about the products he wanted to sell—in this case, stuffed and mounted animals—she told him it was not appropriate material for our readers and we would could not accept his advertisement.
He didn’t like this answer, and asked to speak with her supervisor. That led the businessman to the director of the news office. She supported the decision and told him, “No, thank you, we will not carry your advertising.”
The caller, now very frustrated, demanded the name of the news director’s supervisor. That would be our vice president for communications, an executive officer of the university and a woman with many years’ experience in advertising and marketing.
This put the caller over the top. “How far up the chain at the University do I have to go,” he demanded to know, “before I can speak with a man?”
As you heard with that introduction, I am Mary Sue Coleman and I’m president of the University of Michigan.
That was not the answer our gentleman caller expected, and he had no interest in speaking with me.
But I am very excited to be speaking with you, as young women committed to being leaders, and to share the stage with such dynamic women as Jane Fonda, Anousheh Ansari, and all of today’s speakers.
I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to be part of such an informative and important conference. Most importantly, I want to thank the young women in the audience who have traveled from throughout the world to learn about leadership in the 21st century.
It’s a topic I’ve been looking forward to discussing with you. While the unique nature of higher education demands an unusual set of leadership skills, I believe there are lessons I can share that will help shape the steps you take as tomorrow’s leaders.
Let me first describe to you my world—the world of higher education.
As college students, you live in this world every day, interacting with your professors and learning from them, as well as from your classmates. For the most part, your stay is short-term—long enough to explore new ideas, learn to think critically, and develop the skills for solving problems. And then you are off to a career, with a corporation or a non-profit agency, in government, or perhaps to begin your own business.
I have been in higher education my entire adult life. There was graduate school, a post-doctoral position, a faculty career in cancer research, and then administrative positions with increasing levels of responsibility. I first became a university president in 1995 at the University of Iowa, and in 2002 I was appointed president of the University of Michigan.
Michigan is a powerhouse in higher education. We are among the top universities for conducting research. Our faculty are among the strongest in the country, and our alumni can be found throughout the world, including here in Dubai.
Leading the University of Michigan means leading a multi-billion-dollar organization. We have three campuses and nearly 56,000 students. We have a medical center that is one of the largest—and best—in the country, with more than 1.6 million patients a year. We have over 500 buildings, 8 million books in our library, and the largest football stadium in the country.
It is a big, complex place. It is also a distinctive place, because universities are unlike any other social institution in the world.
We have an extraordinary purpose. A university exists to promote a limitless marketplace of ideas—a marketplace in which ideas are tested, refined and sharpened by competition.
That is why we matter. We embody the aspirations of a society that turns to us for solutions, cures, and answers. And it is why I am so impressed with the establishment and growth of Zayed University and the opportunities it affords women. Higher education throughout the world must tap the full range of human talent, because our universities serve all of society.
Whether you are a woman or a man, leading the University of Michigan is demanding work. Because for all the responsibilities that come with being president of such a large institution, it is not a position with a lot of power.
By their very nature, universities are places where the culture resists authority and hierarchical leadership. I can assure you there are students and faculty at Michigan who are not impressed that I am president—they have no idea what a president does, nor do they care. In fact, when you move from being a faculty member to a university administrator, as I did many years ago, it is a “demotion” in the eyes of many faculty.
What matters to faculty and students is that I protect their right to express and pursue ideas. The overriding value of a university is academic freedom. As president, I have a huge responsibility to protect the rights of individual members of our community to express their ideas and opinions.
All this activity stimulates the intellectual ferment that is the foundation of democracy. That is why I love leading a university and engaging every day with bright, creative and opinionated students and faculty.
I want to share with you some lessons I have learned over the years. Many of my fellow presidents share these experiences, and I believe they apply to leadership at all levels, from being president of a student group to leading a large, complex organization.
Your first lesson is to own what you inherit.
University presidents in the United States are often hired from other institutions. You are brought in by a governing board—not by the faculty—and you assume the priorities and agenda of that board.
When I came to the University of Michigan from the University of Iowa, the most important issue for the Board of Regents was a legal challenge to the University’s use of affirmative action when admitting students. Affirmative action is a decision-making tool that gave the University flexibility in making the class very diverse—by gender, race, ethnicity and talents. This was important to us because we knew from research that diversity makes for a better learning experience for all of our students.
It was an extremely high profile court case, with potential legal implications for all of public higher education in America. The president before me, who also happened to be a lawyer, had made it a priority of his administration.
As Michigan’s new president, I had to quickly and strongly embrace this issue as my own. And I had to show those around me that I was just as committed to the cause as my predecessor. I had followed the case at the University of Iowa, and an immense amount of preparation was required once I arrived at the University of Michigan. It was extremely rewarding, especially when we prevailed before the highest court in the country—the Supreme Court of the United States.
Whether you are leading an organization for the first time or are a veteran, you cannot come in with preconceived ideas about where you are going to take that institution without first understanding how things work. And that process takes time, and patience, and a lot of listening.
In time, you will come to know the organization and set the priorities that will move it forward. And you, as its leader, will own and drive that agenda.
My next lesson: Embrace the differences that surround you.
At the University of Michigan, we are very proud of our commitment to diversity. It is something we work for every single day, and we are seen as a national model for building a campus community that is welcoming and respectful of all.
I know that the United Arab Emirates is a federation rich in people of different nationalities. That is why it is so attractive to corporations, universities, and tourists. Embracing diversity means welcoming people, ideas and opinions of all kinds. And as university president, it’s extremely important that I do more than simply tolerate these differences, but rather welcome and encourage them.
Issues of race, politics and religion are politically charged, and no more so than on a college campus. Our university is committed to enrolling more students who are African-American, Latino, and from low-income families. We want these students because they enrich the academic environment for all students, and contribute mightily to our academic excellence.
Here is a quick example of how inclusion makes a difference:
For years and years, federally funded research into heart disease in our country focused solely on males, because it was assumed that heart disease affected only men. That changed in 1991, when Bernadine Healy, a cardiologist, became the first woman to direct the National Institutes of Health.
She made it a policy that the agency would fund only clinical trials that included both men and women if the disease being researched affected both genders.
We suddenly had a wealth of new information about how medical conditions, including heart disease, affect women. We found that women experience some health crises, like heart attacks, very differently than men. In the end, by including women, health care became better for all because it became possible to diagnose heart disease more quickly in women.
That is why it is important to embrace differences. And it is up to me as a leader to share that message with all audiences, particularly those that least want to hear it.
That is a perfect segue to the next lesson: Your voice is your most commanding tool.
Despite what many might assume, my job does not carry a lot of power. In the tradition of American higher education, I cannot fire a professor, or tell a dean what courses should be taught, or demand that students attend class.
But as president, I have a bully pulpit and my words have impact. My strength as a leader comes with the power of persuasion and voicing the values we hold high as a place of learning and research.
Before I was named president of Michigan, the University’s men’s basketball program was under tremendous scrutiny. The team had been extremely successful and our fans absolutely loved the style of play, the winning records, and the national exposure for Michigan. To give you a sense of the emotions, I would compare America’s love of college sports to the passions you see on display at the World Cup.
But it turns out that Michigan’s players had broken the rules that govern U.S. college basketball, including accepting money from a booster. They were wrong as players, and we were wrong as a university.
And it was my job to say that. I stood before a massive bank of microphones and reporters, and announced we were forfeiting our games, removing the championship banners from our arena, and placing our program on probation.
I did not enjoy doing any of this. But nothing was more critical—and powerful—than having the president of the university step forward and say that integrity is more important than winning. I had been president for three months, and it was imperative that I set the tone for the future.
Leaders must make difficult choices, and ethical standards must always inform those choices. I want to be a role model for both women and men, particularly our students and faculty. I am always cognizant of the tremendous responsibility I have been given as president of one of the world’s great research universities.
The fourth leadership lesson I would offer is simple, but hard: Don’t take it personally.
The great American poet Robert Frost once said: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” In the 1920s, Mr. Frost was a member of the Michigan faculty, but his advice very much applies to being a university president.
When you lead an organization, you are fair game for pundits, cartoonists and bloggers. At this moment there is a website called firemarysuecoleman.com. It’s under development, so maybe its creator knows something that I don’t. But clearly, someone somewhere is unhappy with me.
It isn’t the first time.
Whether I am defending our policies or trying to hire a new football coach, I am subject to the most outrageous emails, letters and commentary on radio talk shows. I am “stupid” … “ignorant” … “unable to appreciate sports” because I am a woman … and profanities I won’t repeat.
But I don’t let it—or any other criticism—bother me, because I taught myself never to take too much note of either scorn or praise. None of it is personal, and all of it would be directed at whomever might happen to be president, because the president of the university is the very face of the institution.
My final observation about leadership is that it’s OK to be human.
University presidents live in a bubble. Our workdays blend into nights, and our weekends typically are committed to sporting events, student performances, alumni receptions, and email.
If you lead a public university, you are under a microscope. My husband and I live in the President’s House, a beautiful historic home situated in the heart of our campus. Our backyard abuts the graduate library, where students can peer out the windows and see if we’re hosting a garden party, or barbequing dinner. I once had a student show up in the driveway on Valentine’s Day, dressed in a tuxedo and wanting to propose marriage.
I am not complaining. Rather, I want to make the point that leaders are scrutinized. How I manage myself—from the people I hire for critical positions to the way I wear my hair—is watched, analyzed and, sometimes, modeled.
So this is always on my mind. My behavior sets the tone, and it can carry important messages for our campus community. That does not mean I am a robot; like anyone, I have bad days. And there’s something to be said for showing disappointment or pain, because emotions convey signals to those who look to you to lead.
Last summer our university experienced a tragedy unlike anything in our history when our medical transplant team was killed in a plane crash. These six men were doctors, medical technicians and pilots, all on a mission to save a human life. Their deaths devastated our campus, particularly our medical staff who worked with these men every day.
Nothing prepares you for a tragedy like this, but I knew that my conduct as president was critical to helping our university grieve and move forward. I sat down with the wives and children of these men, I met with their co-workers, and together we hugged and we cried. I also met with the media to answer their questions, questions that often had no answers.
I did this because it was absolutely essential to show our community that it was OK to be hurt and angry and sad about such a senseless loss of life. Leadership is never more important than in times of crises, and demonstrating both strength and compassion will serve you well.
I mentioned my husband a moment ago, and before concluding I want to talk about family.
I have a terrific partner in my husband. We have been together since college, and we have one son and two beautiful grandchildren. My husband has been entirely supportive of me—as a wife, a mother, and a university president.
But my path is only one way. I know women leaders who are single, married and divorced. Some have five children, others have none.
My point is that women can be leaders and balance a personal life. I wish there were a blueprint, but it a life choice that you must make for yourself, and then make happen. There was a time when my husband and I were beginning our academic careers—he is a political scientist—and we were juggling a new baby, day care, a faculty position, and a research appointment. It is not always easy, but it can be done and done successfully. The key is having a strong support system, whether that is a spouse, a sibling, a best friend, a mentor, or family.
None of us—woman or man—can do this kind of work alone.
That is why this conference is so significant. Today’s female college students have grown up in a world where women hold powerful positions—as elected officials, heads of government, CEOs of major corporations and, yes, university presidencies. When I was in college, there was not a woman secretary of state or Supreme Court justice, or women astronauts, and certainly no woman was a serious contender for president of the United States.
In the past 40 years, there has been a sea change in the acceptance and influence of women as effective, powerful leaders. I am proud to have been the first woman to lead the University of Iowa, and now the University of Michigan; I believe my leadership helps open the doors for women at other universities.
That hundreds of young women are gathered here to learn about the promise and peril of leadership is a powerful statement. Before arriving here in Dubai, I spent a week meeting with university leaders in South Africa, a country undergoing dramatic transformation as it embraces the skills and talents of all its citizens. Throughout my time there, I was driven by the words of Nelson Mandela, who said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
You are our next leaders. With your knowledge, your passion, and your commitment, you have the power to change your community and the world beyond.
I can’t wait to see where you will take us.