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Conversations with Maya: Mary Sue Coleman

Mary Sue Coleman in 1961

Mary Sue Coleman displays her 1961 Science Talent Search project, “Studies in Bacterial Mutation.”  Photo: Society for Science & the Public

Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News, sat down to chat with Mary Sue Coleman, President of the Association of American Universities and a former President of the University of Michigan. Coleman is an alumna of the 1961 Westinghouse Science Talent Search (STS) and the 1959 and 1960 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). She is also a member of the Society’s Board of Trustees. We are thrilled to share an edited summary of the conversation.

I understand you had an opportunity to meet President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson while you were in Washington, D.C., competing in STS. Do you remember that experience, and what was that like for you?

We knew that meeting the president was an extraordinary opportunity. What we didn’t understand was that Kennedy wouldn’t be with us very long after that. In retrospect, it was bittersweet.

All the girls were instructed to wear white gloves and hats to the White House to meet with the president and vice president. Everybody was totally smitten with Kennedy because he was a young, fresh, energetic face of the presidency in a way that everybody was excited about. When he was killed, I couldn’t quite believe that I had that experience of meeting President Kennedy. It was very, very meaningful, and I’ve remembered it forever.

What was your experience at ISEF like?

I was engaged in local science fairs before 1959. I went to a lab school that was associated with the University of Northern Iowa, and the faculty was very encouraging, giving me space and time to do my project, which aimed to demonstrate the development of resistance in bacteria to penicillin. It was very simple, but it was exciting for me.

The fair was exhilarating to me because I was able to meet more students interested in science. I was the only person in my small school who was interested in scientific research and participated in science fairs. Through ISEF, I was able to meet other students from around the country and some international students.

How did STS and ISEF affect your career? We hear from a lot of alumni that the fairs were a pivotal moment in their lives.

STS, in particular, convinced me that I was good enough to compete at the highest levels. I competed during the time of the Sputnik threat. And so I got lots of outreach from companies, from individuals around the state, who just said, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re interested in science.” I felt like I was doing something extraordinarily important, not only for myself but for the country.

You’re a trailblazer. You were a university professor with a Ph.D., at a time when there weren’t a lot of women in the sciences. What kind of challenges did you face?

I was a chemistry major at Grinnell College in Iowa. There were other women who majored in chemistry, and also women in graduate school, but there were no women professors. That was something that I found fairly troubling. In fact, when I went to Chapel Hill in 1990 as a university administrator, I put together some analyses of both Duke University and the University of North Carolina about the number of women faculty. I became quite vocal about increasing the number of women professors.

I never felt like people said, “You can’t do this.” I always got encouragement everywhere I went. That’s not to say I didn’t face obstacles. The first roadblock that I recall facing was obtaining a faculty position at the University of Kentucky. There were no women on the biochemistry faculty, and I had to spend more time as a postdoctoral fellow than was ideal — but I also learned a lot during that time. Eventually, I was able to get a faculty position.

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 into science.

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 today?

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 understand 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.