A revolution in Ann Arbor is led from the corner office

Mary Sue Coleman is a rock star college president.

Since being appointed the 13th president of the University of Michigan in 2002, she has been on a tear, successfully guiding the U of M to ever-increasing stature through very difficult times. The U of M has risen in reputation to No. 18 in the entire world, according to the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. At the same time, the annual all funds budget for the Ann Arbor campus has risen to $5.8 billion, and its endowment to $7.8 billion (sixth among all 642 U.S. colleges and universities and second among public schools).

But right now, she’s worried, very worried.  Now is one of the most difficult times in history for great American public universities,” she told me. “Our old business model is unsustainable, and we’ve got to move -- gradually -- to a new one.”

Together with Provost Phil Hanlon, a former U of M mathematics professor, Coleman has been developing a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the university’s increasingly fraught environment, which includes sharply reduced state support, rising tuitions, ballooning student debt, reduced student accessibility, legislative hostility and a new Web-based technology for delivering education products.

Prong No. 1: Take out costs. 

Year by year for more than a decade, the university has been gradually, remorselessly tightening its belt. Over the period, the U of M has taken $235 million in costs out of its general fund budget by reducing expenditures between 1.5 percent and 2.25 percent per year.

“We’ve been relentless,” says Hanlon. “By now, everybody expects it. That’s the way you transform an organization.”  He’s quick to add that the total $235 million cost reduction just about equals what the inflationary rise in university expenses would have been over the period. 

“We’ve done this without general layoffs,” explains Coleman. “In fact, during this period, we’ve added 150 new faculty positions and reduced our overall student/faculty ratio.  But we’ve also increased productivity, changed work rules, made changes in benefits. They’re a lot of little things, but, year by year, they have added up to changing the culture of the institution.”

But Coleman adds that universities cannot be run, top-down, like a big corporation.  “We’re a very complicated organism,” she says, “with many differing constituencies -- students, faculty, staff, alumni -- and many institutions of shared governance. You simply cannot walk into a room and lay down the law. You have to work with people … but you have to be remorseless.”

Prong No. 2: Foster a revolution.

The basic business model of most universities -- a professor lecturing in front of students – is now at risk, thanks to new, web-based technology. Coursera, a nonprofit joint venture among the U of M, Princeton, Pennsylvania and Stanford, is offering free online courses taught by world-famous professors. The response to this revolutionary business model has been overwhelming: More than 100,000 students worldwide have taken courses already, and the total world market for “education for everyone” products is in the millions. 

The U of M is at the forefront of all this, just now taping seven new online courses. “But we’ve gone way beyond just distributing teaching on a new platform,” explains Coleman. “We’re involving our own students who answer questions and grade periodic tests online.  That way, our students gain enormously their understanding the subject by teaching it, while at the same time earning some money.”

Hanlon, the provost, has been thinking about this changed business model for some time.  He calls it “immersive learning."

When developed, it works like this: Students can learn the mechanical manipulations of, say, calculus by listening to lectures, whether in person (old model) or on-line (new model). But learning how to apply calculus techniques to real-life problems is something that demands close, back and forth interactions between student and teacher. More often, this comes through small group practical discussions, much like the old “sections” that covered lecture material. It is through supervised immersion in use of the basic techniques that residential universities propose to add value and sustain their operations.    

Of course, any new technology yields questions, big ones. Suppose universities give out a certificate for successful completion of an on-line course. How much will it cost? What employers will accept it? Will families be willing to pay ever-higher tuition if on-line courses are offered free? Why should universities pay big money for brick-and-mortar facilities when they can distribute courses via the Internet? What, really, is the value-added for a traditional -- i.e. residential -- university, when so much material can be distributed online?

Nobody knows the answers to these questions. But the answers will shake the foundations of the nation’s -- and Michigan’s -- university system in ways unimaginable. 

For years, I’ve thought that the creation and maintenance of great public universities has been one of the signature accomplishments of American society. In recent years, I’ve wondered whether our university system could survive all that’s been thrown at it.

I now believe its continued survival will depend in part on patient, persistent efforts being undertaken in Ann Arbor.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Lee Kirk
Thu, 07/19/2012 - 12:24pm
I agree with Phil that higher education, and with President Coleman's approach to dealing with the changes technology is and will continue to bring to higher education (although her comment that, "You have to work with people...you have to be remorseless," could have been better stated -- "relentless" might have been a better choice). As a graduate in the first class at the Residential College at the U of M, I do think it important to bear in mind that the values and the importance of higher education comes from experiences both inside and outside the classroom, and that the "residential" component of the college experience, particularly for undergraduates, is just as important as what in the lecture hall and lab. Colleges and universities around the country, big and small, increasingly recognize and emphasize the importance of these experiences. To take just one example, Project Detroit, a student initiated program at Michigan, has had an impact both in Detroit and for the Michigan students, several of whom I know, who participated in it. I volunteer with the Service-Learning program at Kalamazoo College, and have seen first hand how these experiences, which typically involve students working in teams, can change lives. My own son's experiences at the College of Wooster, which included being a Big Brother through a campus program for three years, guided him towards his current career path in special education. The diversity of the people on a typical campus, be it large or small, is a vital part of the university experience. On-line programs certainly have their place, particularly in the world of continuing education, but for young adults, there are experiences, connections, and knowledge that can only come through being physically and intellectually present in a learning community. Lee Kirk
Thu, 07/19/2012 - 4:53pm
"Coleman adds that universities cannot be run, top-down, like a big corporation...You simply cannot walk into a room and lay down the law. You have to work with people … but you have to be remorseless.” UofM seems to be out of touch with the realities of 'big corporations', they have made bigger strides in cost control and expanding their prodcuts and service, and even their response time to events because they have decades ago move away from that "lay down the law" prescriptive mindset. Those sustainable companies are the ones turning more and more responsibilities over to the employees having eliminatied the old 'command and control' structure that Coleman alludes to. The 'big corporations' look to what their customers can benefit from and the provide it, univeristies that provide degrees in feilds that aren't helping alums prepare for work so they can repay their loans seems to be about orgainzations that are less interested in what their 'customers' can benefit from than in waht the universities are comfortable providing. It is surprising that the universities aren't asking employers what they want and will accept and working with them to demonstrate how new techniques will provide for their needs. I wonder if the students were better prepared for a changing system how that may affect univeristies. I wonder if the universities have met with the high schools their students are coming from and began heling them change so the students can adjust to the new means and mehtods the universities will be using. The intersting thing is that the 'big corporations' have been changing for decades, the technology they use across those orgainzations has been leading the universities all of that time and yet those corporations have found ways to successfully change and obviously so have the university alums working for them. This sounds a bit self serving. Maybe it is the gradualism that Coleman is so proud of that has been the barrier to necessary change. Many of those 'big corporations' have had to confront their mortality decades ago and made the change, while the universities are still trying to avoid that confrontation.
Fri, 07/20/2012 - 3:33pm
At age 69 I am taking a paid online course how to build high performing web sites. The course is equivalent to an MBA with 11 individual courses, study at my own pace for a year. The course material is web pages, PDF files, and video-audio slide shows. There is or more video per course. There is so much material that I have to figure out how to study and organize material into tools for further use. I cannot memorize it all. As a young man I obtained a BS and MS the old way going to lectures and then doing projects in teams. I am already there where the university is trying to go.